230) My Neighbor Totoro (1988) Dir: Hayao Miyazaki Date Released: May 1993 Date Seen: July 28th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5
231) Kiki's Delivery Service (1989) Dir: Hayao Miyazaki Date Released (DTV): September 1998 Date Seen: July 29th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5
233) Laputa: Castle in the Sky (1986) Dir: Hayao Miyazaki Date Released: April 1989 Date Seen: July 30th, 2009 Rating: 4/5
All very solid and very pretty-looking stories of adolescence, Laputa now being one of my very favorite Miyazaki films. Still, he's got a problem with ending his films that I find more grating than Danny Boyle's sometimes soggy third acts. See my mention of these three in my forthcoming feature on Miyazaki's anime as responsible dream worlds for The L Magazine.
227) The Howling III: The Marsupials (1987) Dir: Philippe Mora Date Released: October 1987 Date Seen: July 26th, 2009 Rating: 3/5
228) Roadgames (1981) Dir: Richard Franklin Date Released: June 1981 Date Seeen: July 26th, 2009 Rating: 4/5
Not as bad as I thought in both cases, the latter vastly exceeding my expectations. See my mention of both of these fun flicks in my primer to Aussie exploitation films for The Onion's New York A.V. Club (they reverted back to their old name so it's no longer called New York Decider).
226) Saw II (2005) Dir: Darren Lynn Bousman Date Released: October 2005 Date Seen: July 26th, 2009 Rating: 1.5/5
I watch the Saw films knowing that they're no kind of good. While Saw II may be a smidge above the other entries in the pedantic franchise--it provides the clearest version of its serial killer hero Jigsaw's manifesto on how torture makes victims appreciate life and avoids the convoluted plots of the sequels that followed--it's just as bad as the rest of them conceptually. In many ways, it does what Jigsaw's traps does: forces the viewer into a corner where it inhumanly assaults them--mostly with bad dialogue and acting; the sadistic violence isn't anything new under the sun, just a little more constipated that its giallo and slasher influences--with every rusty hook in its arsenal of convoluted but fairly dull provocations. Survivors will appreciate quality horror films more afterwards knowing that they have seen some of the worst and lived to like the rest. Moral panic, my ass.
224) Final Destination 2 (2003) Dir: David R. Ellis Date Released: January 2003 Date Seen: July 25th, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5
225) Final Destination 3 (2006) Dir: James Wong Date Released: February 2006 Date Seen: July 25th, 2009 Rating: 2.25/5
It's interesting to note that the Final Destination films have thus far bounced back-and-forth between two filmmakers. 1 & 3 were directed by James Wong and 2 & the soon-to-be-released 4 by David R. Ellis. The franchise's first sequels signal an ongoing tug-of-war going on between Ellis and Wong's respective approaches to this deliriously silly horror franchise about killing egotistical teens in exciting and new ways. It's also a rare instance where the progenitor of a horror franchise has been A) willing but also B) unable to successfully reclaim his own baby.
Ellis' sequel took the concept of Wong's original film and made it more fast, loose and intentionally comic. The deaths were more Raimi-ian than in the first film and consistently more elaborate. Wong's second entry in the franchise however tried to reinvent the series, insisting that it be taken more seriously than Ellis' film and falling flat on its face for it. By tweaking the concept of how the characters can anticipate and then cheat "Death's design" is even more silly in 3 than it is in 1--something about photos as opposed to looking at the flight manifest for where the teen should-be victims would have sat--and the best death scenes are lumped together at the beginning and end.
I'm eager to see what Ellis has in store with 4 (like 3, it will be in 3D!). The fact that he's returning, with a sequel definitively titled The Final Destination no less, suggests that some higher-up trusts him more than Wong to take the series out in zany style and with good reason.
223) Fortress (1993) Dir: Stuart Gordon Date Released: September 1993 Date Seen: July 25th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5
Based on a story by Troy Neighbors and Steven Feinberg, Stuart Gordon's Fortress captures the twisted humanity and frothing-mad paranoia of Philip K. Dick's fiction better than almost every film adaptation. This however is not the relatively lucid Dick most people know, whose stories draw a neat line between oppressor and downtrodden grunt hero but rather the one that wrote "The Pre-Persons," an alarming pro-life short story that doesn't stem from any strictly "conservative" or "liberal" viewpoint but rather a Chicken Little, "The Sky is Falling On All Mankind" mentality. Abortion in the story is used by women to entrap men. It's such a sinister plot that no man has thought to rebel against it and hence has already become eerily naturalized.
Fortress likewise is about the fight to save a future generation waged almost entirely in a mammoth prison modeled after California's "Supermax" facilities. The "Fortress" prison is the ultimate testing ground for humanity, where prospective parents John and Karen Brennick (Christopher Lambert and Loryn Locklin) have to prove their devotion to each other and to their unborn child. In the film's near-future, couples are only allowed to conceive one kid, making the Brennicks unjustly oppressed fugitives because of their desire to replace their firstborn, which miscarried. The two are caught and immediately sent to the "Fortress," a subterranean facility lorded over by an all-seeing, none-forgiving Artificial Intelligence and Warden Poe (Kurtwood Smith). You know you're up Shit Creek when the bad guy from Robocop is the good cop.
Considering that prison has become the ultimate pop symbol for the repression of the human spirit, the "Fortress" is the perfect place to try John and Karen as a Neu Adam and Eve. They are subjected to over-crowding, bullying from fellow inmates and worst of all, a new torture device called "The Intestinator." The tazer-like device is rammed down their gullets upon admittance and used by Poe and their evil Robo-guard to keep unruly prisoners in line under penalty of fatal and literally explosive pain. Toss in the fact that Poe is obsessed with Karen and eventually forces her to become his live-in servant and you have a perfect storm of inhumane conditions (At least, as perfect as Gordon and the film's four screenwriters were willing to go within the confines of the film's R Rating, which is mostly for language, if I remember correctly).
As the active half of the couple, John's primal struggle to defend his wife and unborn child transforms him into a towering everyman fighting for the most elemental kind of freedom. When he's tortured for being involved in a fight with a bloodthirsty inmate, his mind, not his body, is tested, as if that were the last place his keepers could hurt him. In this first of two Freudian hallucinations, we see John's tragic self-image. His role in fathering Poe and a whole generation of other obedient cyborgs is fittingly represented through photo-negative images of Poe clutching a preserved fetus. Knowing and more importantly experiencing this, he makes like Oedipus and tries to gouge his eyes out, preferring ignorance of his role as Ur-Man to the pain of knowing that he's responsible for saving us all.
Fortress's vision of John as unmatched Ubermensch figure is hence only really challenged by Poe (the Prison's Big Sister security system only enforces the villainous status quo Brennick opposes by ceaselessly babbling, "Crime doesn't pay"). Poe's the only man in Gordon's typically stellar cast of supporting characters, which includes Jeffrey Combs and Lincoln Kilpatrick, whose psychological needs extend beyond making due in the prison. His responsibility as an overseer, even a cruel one, affords him more complexity than the rest, who all die helping John and Karen escape.
Poe is different from the rest because, like John, he is destined to be someone, namely John's adversary. At one point, Karen soothes Poe into complaisance by cooing, "You only think that because you're a man. You keep something inside of you that no one else can touch." Both Poe and John are tortured machos with no recourse but to play the hand that Fate has dealt them. The key difference between the two is that Poe's on the wrong side of morality and hence must be punished by film's end, dying the most gruesome death of anyone in the film (the flesh is literally stripped from his bones by an astounding implosion, exposing for a second his white-hot skull). Karen's projected assessment is hence not the kind that redeems or even excuses his actions but rather makes him a better baddie.
It may be tempting to dismiss Fortress because of its strident, quasi-archetypal message but even the film's production history defies normal B-movie classification. The fact that Gordon insisted on building the labyrinthine "Fortress," creating the largest single set in Australian film history, and that Lambert was so gung-ho to film all his own stunts shows that there was a perceived sense of urgency on the set, one that propels the film so far over the top that it's impossible to refuse it its grandiose doomsaying.
222) The Hangover (2009) Dir: Todd Phillips Date Released: June 2009 Date Seen: July 25th, 2009 Rating: 3/5
The Hangover continues Todd Phillips' lukewarm streak of infrequently funny but never more than spastically charming comedies. Like Old School, it's only really funny in parts, gives the bulk of the funny lines to one guy--instead of Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis--and only has a couple of funny random support cast members--instead of Patrick Cranshaw's charmingly lewd geriatric there's Ken Jeong's scwewwy wacist Chinese gangster. There's a lot of junk about how Las Vegas is essentially an American playground/obstacle course, where only the strong man can handle his hedonism but the film's a lil too forgettable for me to really care.
221) Flight of Fury (2007) Dir: Michael Keusch Date Released (DTV): February 2007 Date Seen: July 25th, 2009 Rating: 0.75/5
Considering that Steven Seagal was once renowned for being the socially conscious star of conservative and hilariously hyper-violent action films, it may be prudent to read Flight of Fury as his belated attempt to capture his deluded idea of what the zeitgeist is. According to Seagal, Afghani terrorists are still the bad guys we should be paying attention to. Wow. This is...six years after 9/11? Remarkable.
Typical of Seagal's terrorists, the Afghanis in Flight of Fury could be anyone if you just changed their accents and outfits. They hire a corrupt American pilot to steal a tippy-top secret stealth bomber which naturally only Seagal can bring back to America safely. In their blind hatred of Western civilization and the American way specifically, they decide to nuke two, ahem, specific targets--Europe and America (Yes, all of Europe's going to get it. Suck on those baguettes, amorphous mass of non-English speaking folk!). Like every other Seagal villain, they are truly the baddest of badmen yet, but for serious this time. These guys are so e-ville that they're capable of bribing an American soldier, the noblest of men, to the dark side (the inordinate time the film spends on filming soldiers barking orders at each other and Air Force facilities and equipment in action would make Michael Bay envious).
The flip side to this argument is that one should watch Flight of Fury as just another dumb "Steven Seagal film," which it definitely is. The man still insists on being an unapproachable badass, a holier-than-thou figure with more skills than chins, of which he by now he has a surplus. Like much of his later filmography, it's mostly dull and humorless. The action scenes are still satisfying in their unimpeachable stupidity. Watching Seagal spring into action is a real treat. Though he's gotten older, he still skulks around with his a slight hunch, brisk, kitty-corner baby steps and a constipated stare that he rapidly swings from side-to-side like an impressionable child that's taken his mother's admonishment to look both ways too seriously. He's still the best butthead hero and hence isn't really worth taking too seriously, even if he thinks he is sometimes.
RV!: Point Break (1991) Dir: Kathryn Bigelow Date Released: July 1991 Date Seen: July 24th, 2009 Rating: 2.5/5
229) The Hurt Locker (2008) Dir: Kathryn Bigelow Date Released: June 2009 Date Seen: July 26th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5
As a storyteller, Kathryn Bigelow is not interested in accuracy, sacrificing precision of narrative detail for the sake of frenetic motion with alarming zeal. Her 1991 airhead actioner Point Break features cringe-inducing dialogue that lays bear its characters psychological need for bigger, more dangerous thrills with the delicacy of a steamroller. That token bluntness is a part of her characters' make-up, something that lends their respective characters a semblance of reality while inviting and earning scoffs for its knowing clumsinesss ("Fear causes hesitation, and hesitation will cause your worst fears to come true," says Patrick Swayze's surfer outlaw Bodhi during a moment of dim-bulbed enlightenment).
No matter how much more polished Bigelow's 2008 Iraq War thriller The Hurt Locker is compared to Point Break, it's only slightly less blunt. Locker star Jeremy Renner is depicted by screenwriter Mark Boal with the frankness of a soldier trained to be as direct and unpolished in his thoughts and deeds as possible. When Renner's bomb squad crew try to talk him down from putting his life at risk for kicks, as in the final scene of interaction between Anthony Mackie and Renner, they reflect that lack of delicacy. Realistically, they seem more real as a supporting cast for it.
At the same time, the monotony of their concern for him turns his fragile psyche into a declarative statement instead of a nuanced condition to be observed. Renner and co. barrel through the episodes that make up their company's tour of duty gracelessly, which is to be expected in an action film. In this context, the character is not meant to grow nor become more complex over time because of his unforgiving setting but rather become more transparent in his goals. Never mind subtlety; mission accomplished.
Bigelow is however best recognized as a visual stylist because of her tense and glossy action scenes. In both the action scenes of both Point Break and The Hurt Locker you can see a joyful attention to unkempt motion that is startling in its rugged beauty. As showcases of Bigelow's skill, they're idiosyncratic and highly engaging displays of showmanship. They're also more immediately enticing than unnecessary talk about the dangers of being an adrenaline junkie. Transparency has its price, I guess.
RV!: Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto (1964) Dir: Hiroshi Inagaki Date Released: November 1955 Date Seen: July 23rd, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5
Musashi Miyamoto, director Hiroshi Inagaki's first installment in his three-part adaptation of the epic historical novel by the same name, is remarkable not because of how it sets up the series's dense plot but rather because of its formal audacity. Inagaki's composition of shots is so rich with detail that it often distracts from the mood of the scene itself, forcing the viewer to flesh out specific features of the mise en scene that they should be focussing on. He lays on layer-upon-layer of shadow and color to the point where his canvas becomes ruddy with its hyper-real presentation of human figures as moving parts of the landscape. Scenes where Miyamoto clambers about in the dark up hills and through fields reminded me of Ang Lee's The Hulk because of how intriguing but also infuriating its night-time landscape shots could be.
I appreciated the plot more this time around, though it still feels abrupt in its pacing, which I'm tempted to say is an inevitable pitfall considering that it's an adaptation of a novel that has been likened to Gone with the Wind. But it's the images I remember most about this film, the scenes on the bridge, over the hills, in the shrubbery, up a tree. I don't feel comfortable with them just yet but I do still feel transfixed by them.
220) On Dangerous Ground (1952) Dir: Nicholas Ray Date Released: February 1952 Date Seen: July 23rd, 2009 Rating: 4/5
On Dangerous Ground might have been a less impressive film thanks to if it weren't as aware of the film-noir milieu it operates within. Based on a novel by Gerard Butler, the film is at worst skillfully manipulative thanks to screenwriter A.I. Bezzerides stark dialogue, capable performances by Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan and most importantly, director Nicholas Ray's vision of landscape as a turbulent emotional map. Mary (Lupino), a blind woman, protects her simple-minded kid brother from crooked cop Jim Wilson (Ryan) to introduce moral ambiguity into the life of Jim Wilson (Robert Ryan), a man so far-gone that he pounces on a suspect with the immortal line "Why do you make me do it," and the leer of a wounded animal. Mary's disability forces Jim to quell his bloodlust for her brother, suspected of two murders and rediscover his last remaining dregs of compassion.
Having a blind girl teaching Ryan's Sterling Hayden-esque gorilla-type a lesson in sympathy is cheap sentimentality any way you slice it but in the hands of Ray and co., it's understandable within the context of the operatic drama that Jim imagines his life to be. The firefly lights and overcast shadows of the film's perpetual night-time city bring to life the character's view of a city without hope. The only thing he's sure of, as he whines to that poor anonymous suspect, is that the city's darkness will always be there, waiting for him to sift through it like his trusty index cards of names and photos. Their names are interchangeable but they'll always be there.
Mary frustrates that mentality by forcing him to drive down icy roads and climb over snow-covered mountains just to get to his man, whose youthful face Ray initially hides even from the audience in shoe-gazing glances and pitch-black corners. Discovering that the killer is in fact a boy is the kind of revelation that Clint Eastwood fans know and continue to be affected by, namely that thorny realization that judgment is an inherently corrupting act. Couched so firmly in the ethical morass of Jim's world, this is no mere platitude but a shock to the system, a pulp epiphany from a master of genre storytelling.
218) The Man From Hong Kong (1975) Dir: Brian Trenchard-Smith and Wang Yu Date Released: August 1975 Date Seen: July 21st, 2009 Rating: 1.25/5
Completely inept but not without its entertaining moments, mostly during the overheated action scenes (George Lazenby, especially, oddly enough). See my mention of it in my piece for The Onion's New York Decider on Australian exploitation movies.
217) Party Girl (1958) Dir: Nicholas Ray Date Released: October 1958 Date Seen: July 20th, 2009 Rating: 4/5
Even if this film is more all over the place than most of the other films by Ray I've seen, I feel there's also something very exciting in the interplay between Cyd Charisse and Robert Taylor and the way that Ray films action and posturing. Excellent use of shadowing and thoroughly engaging story. See my mention of it in my piece on the more memorable rebels in the films of Nicholas Ray for The Onion's New York Decider.
215) Bitter Victory (1957) Dir: Nicholas Ray Date Released: March 1958 Date Seen: July 17th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5
Ray and his talented cast works magic with material that's essentially manipulative and shallow--Burton's speeches performed by a lesser actor would have bombed instantly. The way that Ray films Burton and his fellow soldiers trudging through the desert and sweating their way through arguments goes a long, long way. See my mention of the film in my piece on the more memorable rebels in Nicholas Ray's film for The Onion's New York Decider
RV!: Leonard Part 6 (1987) Dir: Paul Weiland December 1987 Date Released: December 1987 Date Seen: July 18th, 2009 Rating: 0.75/5
The best way to watch Leonard Part 6 is to watch the first hour of it and then take a break--go get a pizza or something--come back and then try, just try to comprehend what you're looking at. The film's exquisite badness should unspool that much more aggressively like a skein of aggressively stupid nonsense: constant (Coke) product (Perrier) placement (LAVA SOAP)? Armpit heat-seeking missiles? Melted butter? Nude revue? Dish detergent? Andrew Lloyd Webber-inspired bird ballet? What. Just. Happened?
The answer is nobody knows, at least, certainly not Bill Cosby (and if he doesn't know best, I don't know who does).* The conservative comedian's usual schtick--a talented and tragically undermined father figure on the outs with his wife looks on in mock-despair as his daughter flaunts her ignorance and youth by making bad decision after bad decisions--is drowned out in the film's spastic caricature of spy film cliches. Even Cosby's patented poking fun of anyone that doesn't act like a responsible upper middle-class A-dult is warped into a whirlwind of gibberish replete with a black butler straight out of a minstrel show (he has a line about canceling the grits during an aborted romantic dinner Cosby's ex hosts) and a Magic Eastern-European, a cheeky but absolutely inexplicable inversion of the "Magic Negro" fictional arche/stereotype.**
This apparent lack of logic can be attributed to the whirlpool of graceless slapstick and weird half-baked ideas about what was the matter with James Bond at the time (the fact that the baddy's henchmen are all bulked-up vegetarian ballet dancers may have made sense at one time as a critique of their nature as meat puppets but in the film, it just looks very homo-erotic). I like to imagine that this is because the filmmakers involved had an insane creative sugar rush. They got so hyped-up on the fact that they could get away with something this silly that by the time they took their pizza break and came back down to Earth, they had already gone too far to turn back.
*Cosby, who wrote the original story for the film, infamously went on talk shows to warn people not to see it.
**She's got four pre-pubescent kids, speaks no English, lives in schoolbus surrounded by Russian Orthodox icons and reads Tarot cards. She also dispenses nonsensical advice and cryptic doodads for Cosby's missions (ballet slippers and a Queen bee, for starters).
216) The Linguini Incident (1991) Dir: Richard Shepard Date Released: May 1992 Date Seen: July 18th, 2009 Rating: 0.75/5
The Linguini Incident is the kind of bad, bad, no-good comedy that is top-to-bottom incomprehensible. There is no proof of a guiding intelligence to the film, no suggestion of sustained vision in its storytelling and no concept of how to keep the audience from laughing with instead of at its miserable attempts at exasperated slapstick humor.
For proof of its incoherence, just look at the totally mixed-up plot (it's not mixed-up in a kooky, what-were-those-crazy-kids-thinking kinda way but rather an exasperating, oh-god-my-eyes-they-burn-and-I-can't-stop-screaming kinda way: David Bowie plays an immigrant waiter at an upscale Salvador Dali-themed restaurant. To get his Green Card, he's out to marry any creature blessed with eye shadow. After meeting Rosanna Arquette, a waitress and aspiring escape artist, he settles for robbing the restaurant they work in so he can afford to woo her with a Houdini-related tchatchky so she'll tie the knot with him. Where do I begin? When does it end?
There are glimmers of cogent ideas that might've made for a modest failure of a satire--the rich are fascinated by little bobo jailbait that rob them while wearing brazzierres with switchblades for nipples, which is I guess some kind of funhouse response to Giuliani Time paranoia, but um, really? Knife Nipples? This makes Ms. 45 look punchy--but they never take center stage. Instead, the audience is left wondering at David Bowie's mismatched contacts and ever-changing coiff and Rosanna Arquette's more-than slightly BDSM-like proclivities (heels and cuffs and nooses, oh my!). Hours later, I'm still dumbfounded. What corner of Hell did I dredge this thing up from exactly?
Note: Shepard did The Matador in 2005. WHAAAAAAAAAAA?!
213) Tetro (2009) Dir: Francis Ford Coppola Date Released: June 2009 Date Seen: July 16th, 2009 Rating: 3/5
Something about being an independent filmmaker again brings out the Peter Greenaway in Francis Ford Coppola. Both 2007's Youth Without Youth and now Tetro are interesting failures that give in to Coppola's latent love of convoluted "more is more" filmmaking. Tetro's classical Hollywood plot stucture shows his reluctance to embrace that tendency towards cold expressionism. The film's straightforward, almost basic structure and themes--fraternal rivalry, a favorite of Coppola's--is at odds with the Greenawayian tendency to announce his mixture of love and frustration for artifice by being blatantly artificial, each shot so over-composed that the most jarring transitions cause instant tension headaches.
Tetro's an argument film, one that plays out like a dialectic between the dual aesthetic precepts of hack artist Abelardo (Mike Amigorena), directing, writing and performing in Fausta, or if Faust were a bimbo. The first such pronouncement comes when Abelardo, as the devil in Fausta, exclaims mock-seriously "Youth is naked." Despite Abelardo's inflection of irony, that's a statement of fact not up for discussion in Tetro. Alden Ehrenreich's impassioned performances as Bennie, the 18 year-old boy that goes in search of his older brother and tortured genius Tetro (Vincent Gallo), is testament to that. Bennie's narrative is portrayed with an aching sincerity made all the more heartfelt thanks to Ehrenreich's knack for playing the kind of bashful kid type that Matt Damon broke out with.
Had Tetro remained relatively grounded in that story and cut out a half hour earlier, Coppola's internal conflict could have been resolved amicably. As it is, Tetro ends but then keeps going, diving headlong into Greenaway territory for a half hour. Here the viewer is thrown into an abstract land of surreal posturing that refuses to celebrate its arrogantly accomplished attitude (Sean Burns described part of this quarter in his stellar review as "Fellini-esque" but Fellini would have had more fun while being alienatingly aloof). No, Tetro's irresponsibly drawn-out finale is a testament to Coppola's not-quite tacit agreement with Abelardo's other, more didactic, declaration, namely that "Theater is dead," a mirror to Greenaway's announcement that the "Cinema is dead."
The dribs and drabs of poetically cryptic images that seep through the flashbacks the film's first 90 minutes were sufficient, if not tentative, mergers of abstruse images and traditional storytelling, making the hyper-excessive ending redundant. Perhaps Coppola should just make a silent, avant garde short film and work out whatever creative trepidation he's got going on right now. In the meantime, I'll wait for a sequel to Youth Without Youth with baited breath.
212) Born to Be Bad (1950) Dir: Nicholas Ray Date Released: August 1950 Date Seen: July 16th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5
A wonderful film about performance with a pair of ribbuting performances by Robert Ryan and Joan Fontaine. See my mention of it in my feature on the more memorable rebels in Nicholas Ray's films for The Onion's New York Decider.
RV!: In a Lonely Place (1950) Dir: Nicholas Ray Date Released: May 1950 Date Seen: July 15th, 2009 Rating: 4.25/5
This is probably my favorite Ray film at the moment. The vicious nature of Bogey's jaded character really stings this time around now that I feel more assured in thinking that the flimsy deus ex machina ending is a cop-out. I think Dix did it.
What frustrates me this time around however is how Bogart keeps covering his face with his mitts and prevents himself from showing us that he can bring to the table the tired menace that in other scenes he exhudes with non-chalance. See my mention of this in my piece for The Onion's New York Decider on the Nicholas Ray retro at Film Forum.
211) They Live By Night (1948) Dir: Nicholas Ray Date Released: October 1949 Date Seen: July 14th, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5
While it may be woefully short-sighted to say that Ray's debut establishes on a template for noble rebels that he would later elaborate on in his superior later films, that may be more true than I care to admit. See my mention of this in my feature for The Onion's New York Decider on the Nicholas Ray retro at the Film Forum.
RV!: Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008) Dir: Nicholas Stoller Date Released: April 2008 Date Seen: July 12th, 2009 Rating: 4/5
By now it's become a rote statement to say the Apatow cartel has risen to prominence based on the stregnth on their man-made and approved romcoms. An "Apatow" film hinges on the sexual and domestic fantasies of sensitive boors. They're sensitive enough to realize the error of their homophobic, sexist and happily juvenile ways but are not mature enough to ditch the bong, the booze and the dick jokes just yet.
That's what makes Jason Segel's protag. in Forgetting Sarah Marshall such an exemplary Apatow man. He's a blocked-up musician whose recent break-up with long-time girlfriend and star Sarah Marshall has left him an emotional wreck. He's also a guy that tries to seduce hi soon-to-be ex-girlfriend by opening his towel after a shower and jiggling furiously. He drinks to forget but he can't because he still has feelings for Sarah. He's miserable but too stupid to do anything about it without the help of a few good men and another girl.
Segel's buoyant script crystallizes the "bromance" subgenre that Apatow has so capably capitalized on by giving it a focus and a star schmuck that is as self-deprecating and charming as his supporting cast of deranged male-dominated characters. The film's structure is more rigorous than most other Apatow-produced films and there is never a slack moment. Very funny stuff.
210) Antique (2008) Dir: Min Kyu-Dong Not Yet Released Date Seen: July 11th, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5
Antique, an adaptation of a popular manga about gay pastry chefs that solve crime in their spare time, immediately impressed me with its over-eagerness to please. It's very much a capable summer movie as defined as a very light but amiably hyper source of superficial entertainment that dabbles with a certain aspect of the human condition with more unabashed glee than wisdom.
The film's approach to storytelling and how to live life is simple: excess is best. There is no room in between ecstatic frenzy and the most sparkly, shiny and peppy kind of depression that you can find (I wish that when I felt depressed that I felt as good as these guys do). Any doubts if sweeter is necessarily better are strictly rhetorical, even if the film's characters don't realize that yet (Sun-woo, a "gay of demonic charm" mock-seriously wonders, "Can anyone be unhappy eating cake?").
Antique careens forward recklessly on the speed and the energy of plentiful montages full of double-exposed overlapping shots, chockablock of floating daydream imagery, commercial-worthy food photography and rapid-free dialogue. It's too syrupy to to be of much value in terms of its airy musings on how people need to be responsible for other people to be happy but it doesn't need to be. After all, durable fluff never needs that long of a shelf-life.
209) Land of the Lost (2009) Dir: Brad Silberling Date Released: June 2009 Date Seen: July 6th, 2009 Rating: 2.25/5
In Brad Silberling's revival of Sid and Marty Krofft's campy Edgar Rice Burroughs' spinoff Land of the Lost, the mediator between head and heart is the groin. So much of the film's time is spent taking the piss out and onto Dr. Rick Marshall (Will Ferrell), mad scientist and babbling egotist, that it rarely remembers that it's set in a world of Sleestaks and T-rexes. Screenwriters Chris Henchy and Dennis McNicholas are so fixated on showing that Marshall, the brainiac that discovers "tachyon" rays and the portal to an other dimension, is just as ineffectual as Will Stanton, Danny McBride's simian-like yokel, that they suck all the fun out of the preposterous world they stumble through for 101 painfully drawn-out minutes.
The weirdly endearing prehistoric other dimension they visit is reduced to jokes about the size of a dino's brain--big enough to outsmart Marshall at every turn, apparently, da-hoyk!--and neutered, "family-friendly" jokes about reptile dicks, poop and pee. What made the original TV show so wonderful was how eager it was to show off its gemstone-powered technology and lizard people. It was cobbled together from flimsy styrofoam, cheap rubber and lots of by-now hideously outdated greenscreen technology but it was earnestly off-the-wall. This film reshapes that silly world to make fun of the show's childishly overzealous, self-assured protag. That's not pop progress, that's just needlessly cruel.
Note: I liked Ferrell for the most part because I still think his brand of blustery posturing is pretty good even though the material he's given is pretty lousy. In other words, I laughed but then stopped short after I processed what Ferrell was saying.
208) King Kong Escapes (1967) Dir: Ishiro Honda Date Released: June 1968 Date Seen: July 5th, 2009 Rating: 3/5
Take a giant ape with a thing for blondes, toss in a remote-controlled robot doppelganger armed with grenades and mix in an evil scientist with a secret hideout full of armed goons all wearing gumball orange helmets and you have a sure-fire hit. In principle, at least. King Kong Escapes mucks up in focussing so much on the paltry human-based overplot that it forgets that the real reason people watch the film is to watch a giant ape grapple with a giant robot.
Director Ishiro honda and writer Takeshi Kimura take the worst parts of Toho's rote monster movie formula, marginalizing the bulk of the breezy carnage and discoveries about the monsters' origins and strengths for the sake of spending more time with square, charmless and easily forgettable mortal heroes and villains--not even the cloaked Dr. Who (not related, fanboys!), who struts around his lair with a silver pomp more deadly than his pistol. The few scenes with the monsters are fun and the spirit of naively zany storytelling is inescapable but most of the time, there's no reason to care.
Note: Something I didn't effectively communicate the first time around (this being added several days after I watched the film) is that a Godzilla or King Kong movie need not necessarily be all about kaiju carnage and flammable model kits. They just need to reflect the inventiveness and the joy of revelation that those scenes effectively communicate through more, shall we say, immediate means. The plot in King Kong Escapes stalls interminably because it devotes too much time to watching people try to do things rather than doing something, anything. Dr. Who mostly tries to get rid of the evil do-gooders on his trail or tries to extract Element X. The attainment of those goals never feel consequential because there's no clear idea of what's at stake if he actually succeeds.
This fixation on repetitive, brainless action without consequence is most salient in the scene where Kong is hypnotized by Dr. Who into feverishly cultivating Element X out of the ice it's embedded in. Kong digs and digs but eventually he breaks free of Who's control because...um....shiny light? During the scene, Kong's actions are only understandable after the fact through the hysterical admonishments of Dr. Who as he inevitably loses control of his mindless slave. There's no reason to care about what's happening because it's just a foregone conclusion reached without relatable or decipherable motives.
By contrast, Godzilla Vs. Mecha-Godzilla, which I recently re-visited just before this film, was able to make each scene feel consequential, springing to life with a spontaneity that never failed to impress me with its devotion to nonsensical details. Good monster movies can and have been made in the Toho mold. Sadly, it's just too easy to make crap in them, even if that crap has more glimmers of inventiveness than most other kinds of bad monster movies.
RV!: Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla (1974) Dir: Jun Fukuda Date Released: March 1977 Date Seen: July 4th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5
I can't get over the boundless energy of this movie has and just how spazzy it might have seemed in the hands of any other filmmakers that weren't as sure of themselves as Fukuda co. are. Toho Studios' '70s Godzilla movies already had their rhythm down so by the time Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla came long, they already had an accomplished team of effects artists on-tap to make impressive rubber monster fights on a budget. The film's perky, kaleidoscopic color schemes are clearly the product of artists with the knack and the budget to match their wonky imaginations.
And what imaginations they had. The film's story is chockful of weird confrontations and revelations, relying on the childish urgency of its breathless"But then!" logic. It's a jumble of space aliens, sun glass-wearing Interpol agents, do-gooder monsters and super-powers that beg to be pored over by zealous ten year-olds as they might with trading cards that break down the Godzilla-verse into an explosion of nonsense facts and cool poses. Director Fukuda and his three co-writers pull together a twist-filled story with the mastery of men that love to tease their young audience. They know the feverish effect their stories of apes from outer space and rocket fingers have on their audience and they give their pint-sized worshippers something to gasp at almost every five minutes.
They do it so well that years after I was first saw Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla, I still felt a little shocked when watching Mecha-Godzilla, disguised as Godzilla, uncharacteristically thrash Megagiurus to a pulp and felt my heartstrings expertly plucked when I saw Godzilla later gasp for breath as he bleeds out just a little bit more before he rallies with King Caesar and turns himself into a living magnet pole. That kind of gonzo wonder is what I like to think I remember from years ago; I'm very happy to see still that it affects me now that I'm a crotchety, uber-jaded young man.
Note: The fight scenes in the film, specifically the human fights, look almost improvised in just how chaotic and unpolished they are. The Japanese grappled with their alien foes like animals, scrabbling for whichever of their opponent's body parts that they can get a hold of more immediately. It reminds me of one of the fight scenes in the original Manchurian Candidate when Frankie is fighting some Communist in an office and it looks like they're really going at it, scoping each other out and breathlessly just pouncing on each other. I was not expecting that in a Godzilla flick at all.
207) Whatever Works (2009) Dir: Woody Allen Date Released: June 2009 Date Seen: July 3rd, 2009 Rating: 2.25/5
Mediocre Woody Allen movies like Whatever Works bring out the Woody in me. Having seen 24 of Woody's films now, I am in the privileged position of knowing enough about his limitations and his strengths. Though I understand the former is negligible when compared to the latter, I cannot help but feel that I am entitled to prize my favorite Woody over these lesser entries in his massive oeuvre. I also know that this is not a valid excuse on its own to dump on this individual film.
But why complain about what does make it bad? It's a useless endeavor to mention how stale and unkempt the film's dialogue was, how contrived the plot was or how limited Larry David's range is--as big as his arms can spread, but no further--because it's been done. Even apeing the man's voice is boring me. I liked the cast: David at times, Patty Clarkson, Ed Begley Jr., the handful of lines Conleth Hill had. But I really can't bring myself to say much more than that so I'll shrug my shoulders, sigh a bit and wink at you. How's that?
206) The American Astronaut (2001) Dir: Cory McAbee Date Released (OOP DVD): February 2005 Date Seen: July 2nd, 2009 Rating: 4/5
A warning to anyone about to watch writer/director Cory McAbee's 2001 science fiction musical/space western The American Astronaut: ignore the ending coda. It attempts to resolve a resolution-less story in a manner that makes flying off into the sunset in an alien Cadillac look downright conclusive. Though McAbee's plot runs out of steam about three-quarters of the way through its scant 92-minute-long runtime, the way that it develops its characters' sexual psychoses is what keeps the film intriguing. The coda unsuccessfully tries to dispel the blunt suggestions of attraction between Samuel Curtis (McAbee), a space trader and "The Boy Who Actually Saw a Woman's Breast" (Greg Russell Cook), hints which are the lifeblood of the film.
This is a minor but important setback for a film that ironically insists that what makes outer space so weird and wonderful is that how it warps the minds of its travelers in ways that cannot be expressed. All the major players in The American Astronaut are at least slightly sex deranged. Curtis, played by a 40 year-old McAbee, flirts with "The Boy" in an interminable montage sequence full of slow-motion giggling and exchanged furtive glances. "The Boy" is supposed to be 16 years-old and the idol of a sex-crazed planet of grimy male work slaves, none of whom have ever seen a creature with a Y chromosome. He is being shipped to the Venusians, a planet of women able to procreate on their own that will use the teen as their stag. Meanwhile, Prof. Hess (Rocco Sisto), Curtis' arch-nemesis, looks to have had some kind of taboo altercation with our hero for which he has always blamed Curtis, though that something is thankfully never fully explained.
These libidinal hang-ups are fittingly expressed not through expository dialgue but through winning amateur musical numbers and the thick fog of shadows that surround the men thanks to cinematographer W. Mott Hupfel III's rich black-and-white photography. The film thus does not ever capably provide a uniform polish to its story. Instead, it zooms along on a boundless supply of energy and visual ingenuity. Atmosphere trumps explanations here, making the final coda a negligible speedbump in an otherwise charming and demented alternative space opera.
205) Dead Snow (2009) Dir: Tommy Wirkola Date Released: June 2009 Date Seen: July 1st, 2009 Rating: 3/5
The relatively subdued first 30-45 minutes of co-writer/director Tommy Wirkola's Dead Snow, or "that nazi zombie movie" to most people, is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it establishes Wirkola's skill at directing effectively moody scenes of horror--the use of shadows and the locale create the kind of atmosphere that most of the films that Wirkola namedrops over the course of the film could only dream of. On the other, it is symptomatic of the overserious intent of a formidable budding splatter artist.
Too often Wirkola refuses to block off the camera angles of the shots he's working with so that they form a coherent picture of what's going on. He tries to have his cake and eat it too by showing off that he doesn't need to show us everything. In infrequently using clumsy-looking camera angles that obscure what's happening from view, Wirkola maintains that he can be both funny and naturalistic. As in a scene where a character is beating up a crow that's hidden from view behind the boughs of a tree, that technique rarely pays off and only really looks interesting when the camera is gliding alongside the characters as they run for their lives (that's probably because tracking shots are some of the most seductive movements in cinema). When Wirkola buckles down long enough to properly frame our horny teenagers as they stave off wave after wave of nazi zombies, Dead Snow can be rather funny and good-looking. In a film where undead Germans run, talk and hunt for stolen treasure, the obvious joke is sometimes the best.
204) Deep Blue Sea (1999) Dir: Renny Harlin Date Released: July 1999 Date Seen: June 30th, 2009 Rating: 1.25/5
The limits of my patience were tested by Renny Harlin's Deep Blue Sea, a lousy "Christian horror" movie by the maestro of guilty pleasure actioners. Though there is something perversely appealing about watching LL Cool J quote scriptures and hear people saying "God damn it" like they mean it, a man can enjoy meagre pleasures of rubbernecking at conservative doggerel for only so long. Boredom sank in fairly quickly and was only really alleviated during the shark attack sequences, which is funny considering how unpolished the CGI sharks in this film look. Watching Stellan Skarsgard and Michael Rapaport get eaten--and who could forget Sam Jackson's immortal death scene--I was tempted to say that the film could benefit from some Youtube-friendly editing. Then again, I feel it's imperative for viewers to experience firsthand the film's preponderance of wan moments. After all, they're not all tedious; some of them are just laughably stupid, like when LL Cool J, slogging through hip-deep water, is momentarily tempted by a porno magazine held that floats by at that moment for no good, narratively grounded reason.