Sunday, May 31, 2009

154) Yella (2007)

154) Yella (2007) Dir: Christian Petzold Date Released: May 2008 Date Seen: May 30th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

Christian Petzold's Yella is an intriguing puzzle almost entirely because of its tantalizing payoff. While there are infrequent hints that something un-natural, even super-natural, is going on in the newly overturned life of Yella Fichte (Nina Hoss), they are completely overshadowed by the gigantic question mark that the film's elliptical ending provides. That's quite a feat considering that these little hints especially stand out considering how steeped the rest of the film is in the jargon of its capitalist critique--as in Petzold's recent Jerichow, steely aggression is rewarded immediately and punished with Tragedy later.

Yella learns that lesson the hard way, leaping into a deceptively seductive new job as an accountant without carefully checking it out first. Rather than being completely dicked over, she gets an alternative business proposition of Ben (Devid Streisow), a go-getting stranger whose business sense impresses Yella first, followed by his modest good looks much later. You see, Yella's going through a rough patch right now--between being harassed by her obsessive ex-husband Tom (Hinnerk Schonemann) and the hard truth about her new job--making his curiously sexless proposal immediately appealing. That kind of pragmatism makes her a killer in the conference room and a major asset to her sanity considering the sudden mysterious emotional spells that periodically overcome her.

Yella's business sense allows her to readily adapt to her precarious and emotionally delicate situation as it unfolds. Periodically, she's snapped out of her spell of complaisance by a sudden, deafening jolt and is visited by Tom or overwhelmed by a throbbing headache. One time she's pulled out of the  flow of events by the shotgun blast-sounding boom that precedes her taking a fateful car ride with Tom, another time by the breaking of a glass during a meeting. In both instances, she's awed by the presence of something bigger than her, some ultrasensory presence that overwhelms her with the feeling that she's almost certainly no longer in control of her actions.

Up until the film's ending, these little signs simply look like telltale signs that Yella is cracking up and that she will inevitably become the emotional descendant to Gaslight's Paula Alquist. Thankfully, Yella's last little twist is delivered with an admirably modest attention to detail that made me appreciate the myriad subtle little visual hints Petzold sprinkles along the way. It made me want to reconsider the meaning of even the most innocuous scene, like when Petzold lingers on Yella dozing, prostrate form. It establishes a tantalizing sense of mystery that complicates Petzold's otherwise simplistic socialist critique of bourgeois delusions and makes it a worthy predecessor to his superior Jerichow.

153) Crows Zero (2007)

153) Crows Zero (2007) Dir: Takashi Miike Date Released (DVD): May 2009 Date Seen: May 31st, 2009 Rating: 3.25/5

Rather than bow down before Takashi Miike's ability to represent punk mentality, I will say this: the man certainly knows what punks like to think they are. Crows Zero is like a punk's comic book fantasy, a story where inarticulate young thugs scowl, put their hands in their pockets and act out because hyper-stylized violence and factionalism is fun. At least, it's certainly fun to watch in bits and spurts.

After a while, Crows Zero loses momentum and the plot feels like a means to an inevitable epic schoolyard ass-kicking. Miike proves he can be serious about something as inconsequential as the raging hormones that leads up to a contest of adolescent tough guy wills and makes a fun, if not seriously drawn-out, movie about and for young punks. If you've been hankering for a J-pop, manga pose-filled final fight, make yours Crows Zero.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

152) Bronson (2009)

152) Bronson (2009) Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn Date Released: October 2009 Date Seen: May 30th, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

There's a decent stretch of Bronson, Nicolas Winding Refn's surreal faux autobiography of Michael Peterson (AKA Charles Bronson), that detaches itself from our protagonist's controlling POV. In it, it becomes clear that Refn is no longer allowing the man to tell his story in his words and images but is rather speaking for him as a ventriloquist. While the film's first half makes it seem as if Bronson's grandiose world of theatrical bloodshed is being respectfully recreated, the aforementioned period in the film's second half substantiates an unsettling but unavoidable truth about Refn's character study. Being the cocksure and sufficiently talented young artist that he is, Refn patronizingly trying to turn Michael Peterson into the next Alex.

The surname-less Alex I'm referring to is of course the egomaniacal prison system victim in William Burgess and Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange. Comparing Alex to Bronson is easy considering how both are essentially wild animals turned feral by prison cruelty. As the film's coda announces, Bronson, (Tom Hardy, in his bravura breakout role) "is Britain's most famous prisoner," because he's one of the most violent and the most stringently repressed--"He has spent 34 years in jail, 30 of them in solitary confinement." Bronson's story is thus one that centers on his continual struggle to re-assert control of his emotions and his life. Because he would turn his life into an opera, he alternately narrates his story from a prison cell and from a theater stage in front of an imaginary full house. 

That kind of naked ambition is one that Refn readily accommodates but not without a queasy sense of humor. Bronson's mercurial nature, partly due to his surroundings but mostly because of his brutal restlessness, lends itself to cruelly condescending jokes at his expense. One minute he's barking the "c" word at a prison guard he's taken hostage and the next he's meekly asking him, "Well, what happens now?" Refn turns him into a confused monster in a world he never created, a tragic savage that constantly lashes out to maintain the illusion of power. This makes Bronson a gorgeously constructed case study that is far too easy to tease meaning out of. 

During the scenes where Bronson's out of prison for a scant 69 days (he robs a jewelry store), we see Refn poke take some revelatory jabs at our anti-hero but we also see him ease back and tell his story in a more honest and less obtrusive way. We get to see him stripped of his imaginary audience and his vaudeville make-up, a clownish figure permanently out of touch with reality. Here, Hardy shows his skill with broad comedic gestures that make him look like an indignant doberman. As a sequence unto itself, it works wonderfully but as part of a story where a mustachioed gorilla tries to build himself up to the Olympian heights of movie stardom through fantastic brawling, it's a long, hard dose of movie-reality. 

Note: I liked Hardy's muscular performance quite a bit but I think I'll wait 'til I rewatch this one or see him in something else that can confirm my opinion of him. I can't remember him too well from Rock n Rolla but I remember that he was in it. Eh, time will tell. 

151) A Perfect Day (2008)

151) A Perfect Day (2008) Dir: Ferzan Ozpetek Not Yet Released Date Seen: May 30th, 2009 Rating: 3/5

Kinda sad to say this but primarily because of the Tragic ending, this is probably one of the better films at this year's "Open Roads." Ozpetek once again looks good for all the wrong reasons. See my mention of it in my piece on FSLC's "Open Roads" program for The House Next Door.

150) I Am Alive (2008)

150) I Am Alive (2008) Dir: Dino Gentili and Filippo Gentili Not Yet Released Date Seen: May 30th, 2009 Rating: 1.75/5

Another self-righteous and ostentatious drama about pushing familial obligations and the past away. The same "New Italian" drivel in a different package. See my mention of it in my piece on FSLC's "Open Roads" program for The House Next Door.

Friday, May 29, 2009

149) Brave Men (2008)

149) Brave Men (2008) Dir: Edoardo Winspeare Not Yet Released Date Seen: May 29th, 2009 Rating: 2/5

Boring melodrama that exemplifies the "New Italian" need to have it both ways when a character's difference comes to both define and confine their sense of self. See my mention of it in my forthcoming piece for The House Next Door.

148) Giovanna's Father (2008)

148) Giovanna's Father (2008) Dir: Pupi Avati Not Yet Released Date Seen: May 28th, 2009 Rating: 4/5

A variation on the blaise formula of most domestic-based "New Italian" films but an infinitely superior drama because nobody gets spared, any semblance of closure or substantial kind of solace. Brutally uncompromising and a very strong film from a veteran filmmaker. See my mention of it in my coverage of FSLC's "Open Roads" program for the House Next Door.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

147) Food, Inc. (2008)

147) Food, Inc. (2008) Dir: Robert Kenner Date Released: June 2009 Date Seen: May 27th, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

Surprisingly effective. See my review for Slant Magazine.

146) If You Are the One (2008)

146) If You Are the One (2008) Dir: Xiaogang Feng Not Yet Released Date Seen: May 27th, 2009 Rating: 2.75/5

Spoilers below!

Xiaogang Feng's If You Are the One, a romantic comedy about Qin Fen (You Ge), a 40-something year-old man that goes in search of his soulmate and ends up finding Shu Qi,  may be one of the most simplistic, herky-jerky attempts to use melodrama to tackle the current economic crisis. In it, Qin goes on a series of blind dates and eventually gets the more curious than deeply emotionally involved Smiley (Qi) to agree to be his wife. Her one condition is that she'll always have her ex-husband in her heart. The rest of the film is spent with Qin trying to woo her over, a venture that eventually pays off after she tries to kill herself. Apparently the trauma of the event makes her realize that Qin really is the right guy for her after all. What does this have to do with the economy, you ask? According to Feng, everything. 

Though his role as an inventor and hence an active cog in the wheel of the big money machine is relatively minor, Qin's outlook on life is meant to serve as a model of patience in the face of certain doom. At the beginning of the film, Qin sells the patent of a tube meant to resolve conflicts for two million dollars but by the end, he has to buy it back because nobody takes it seriously. Like Smiley's love, his monetary prosperity comes and goes freely. Apparently, all you have to do when things get tough is wait for it to try to kill herself, I mean to get better.

That kind of blaise truism is so in love with its self-satisfied non-resolution that it smothers the film's better moments, specifically the handful of delicately observed scenes of conversation between Qin and Smiley, with its overbearing insistence that everything will work itself out somehow, someway--so long as your girlfriend has a change of heart after TRYING TO KILL HERSELF (can you tell I'm angry?). These quiet bits of dialogue are all inevitably cut short by Feng's persistently listless wandering from one scene to the next. If I'm not even allowed the small pleasure of watching the two bond at a natural pace, I think I'd just rather wait for a better romcom to come along.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

145) Cape No. 7 (2008)

145) Cape No. 7 (2008) Dir: Te Sheng-wei Not Yet Released Date Seen: May 26th, 2009 Rating: 2/5

I may be missing something here but Cape No. 7, Taiwan's biggest grossing film of all tim, underwhelmed me because I didn't "get" the connection between leaving Taiwan to find a new home in Japan. That's to some extent due to my own cultural ignorance but it's also a lot to do with the florid and utterly prosaic language that those sentiments are couched in. Then again, while these voiceover-happy flashbacks to 1945 scenes serve as a prominent foil to the film's contemporary drama. They're meant to provide a historical precedent to Aga's contemporary malaise and hence are only as relatable as the film's protagonist, Aga (Van Fan).  

While it may be hard to decipher any sociohistorical meaning from these scenes, wherein a lovesick immigrant laments having to leave behind his home and the girl he loves, it's easy to read Aga. He's an angry young man with zero ambition and a huge chip on his shoulder. By reading the lost letters of this mysterious ancestor, Aga's mistrust of his home, his father the mayor (Hsi Tien Huang) and everyone that doesn't respect his misanthropy is supposed to abate. It doesn't however because Aga's an unsympathetic dick. And he's our protagonist. Ruh roh.

 Aga's so busy scowling at everyone that he never earns our affection, unlike a couple of the mostly underdevloped supporting cast--I'm thinking specifically of Uncle Mao (Johnny Chung Jen-Lin), the elderly postman and Malasun (Ma Nien-Hsien), the perky rice wine merchant.  The bulk of Cape No. 7's plot revolves around Aga's newfound desire to be surrounded by uncomfortably familiar faces thanks to a local concert that requires him to rock out with a motley crew of local musicians. He plays his guitar, proves his worth and wins Tomoko (Chie Tanaka), the girl of his mopey dreams and the person he's been glowering at the hardest throughout the film. And yet, by film's end, even with his artistic ego having been stroked and a girl to call his own, no such transformation occurs.

 If Aga's supposed to be the lead of a "crowd-pleasing" figure, my understanding of what crowds like must be woefully out of touch. First of all, though he's a prima donna,  Aga's just not very talented. While he can play the guitar well enough, the best song he can come up with in time for the big concert is a generic pop song with sappy and near incomprehensible lyrics like "be the skywalker of dreams." He won't let his bandmates to sing along with him and even tries to shoo away Old Mao when he tries to play a solo for their band's encore. He doesn't congratulate them or even patronizingly look on with pride when it the audience cheers on their improvised creative decisions and yet he still gets to the girl at the end.

And what a sham that relationship is. All he and Tomoko do to connect with one another is get into inconsequential conflicts regarding the band--she's its official manager--sleep together and then hold hands at the concert's climax. It's abundantly clear that by the morning after, there's no real connection between the two, not even the kind that should connect two people estranged by the sudden realization that they just did the nasty together with no recollection of the momentous occasion. They just stare off into their respective corners with nary a twitch to suggest there's some kind of spark between them, not a single unconscious bit of body language that suggests that these two may actually want each other. 

Hell, by the film's end, it's not his song that seals the deal but rather a token gesture from Rauma (Min Hsiung), one of Aga's quirky bandmates (he's a traffic cop--that wants to sing!), that wins her over. With no visible connection between the two, there's no way to understand what makes Taiwan attractive to today's generation, nor to figure out exactly what a "skywalker of dreams" does exactly. That's one conundrum that will almost certainly keep me up nights.

Monday, May 25, 2009

144) Children of the Dark (2008)

144) Children of the Dark (2008) Dir: Junji Sakamoto Not Yet Released Date Seen: May 25th, 2009 Rating: 1.75/5

Based on its lurid title, you can tell that director Junji Sakamoto's Children of the Dark questionably portrays something undeniably sleazy, in this case child prostitution and organ harvesting in Thailand. Based on a novel by Yogil San, the author of the novel that Blood and Bones is adapted from, Children of the Dark is a very angry but very misguided drama about two Japanese foreigners' refusal to let their apathy take root. At its best, it's an unmoving drama about the pair's desperate need to get closure and justice. At worst, it's no better than kiddie exploitation.

The pair's inability to do anything in the face of monstrous evil is the key motivator in Children of the Dark, one that is given a very clumsy, unfocussed voice through their search for a specific child. When Aranya (Setanan Homyamyen), a little girl from a local Thai village goes missing, it's meant to pull both Hiroyuki (Yosuke Eguchi), an investigative journalist and Keiko (Aoi Miyazaki), a volunteer for an NGO (non-governmental organization) children's school, out of their complacence. Sitting on their hands while they try to find a way to help children in general feels like a timid excuse in the face of the impending loss of an individual life. 

Hiroyuki has the right idea initially, saying that in doing his research and attempting to expose the group that sells these children's bodies, he's doing a lot more than Keiko could ever do in trying to just save Aranya. He reneges on that clear-headed approach in the face of Keiko's outspoken outrage, a blind torrent of anger that culminates in a painfully protracted tantrum she pitches in the home of the Japanese couple that would knowingly sacrifice Aranya's life to save their son's. That kind of senseless rancor is impressive but it does not make for a convincing argument.

Without any kind of details regarding the frequency of such illegal fronts or the extent of government complicity, it's clear that Children of the Dark relishes its role as angry prophet of doom too much to appeal to anything but the viewer's basic disgust. In its attempt to shake the viewer up, Sakamoto films two hideous simulated sex scenes that are meant to graphically illustrate the pain these kids are subjected to. In the most memorable and morally reprehensible scene, a child's bleeding rear is shown in soft-focus, highlighting a red trickle on blurred flesh. That kind of confrontational imagery may be admirably trying to wake us up to unpalatable violence but when it's couched in a bleak and aimless procedurial like this one, it makes Sakamoto look as manipulative as the people his film condemns. 

143) Hancock (2008)

143) Hancock (2008) Dir: Peter Berg Date Released: July 2008 Date Seen: May 24th, 2009 Rating: 3.25/5

The theatrical cut of writers Vince Gilligan and Vincent Ngo's Hancock is the kind of mess that I admire but must begrudgingly admit is not anywhere near what it should have been. The major twist that begins the film's third act is dry-heaves inducingly dizzying in that it does not feel like it belongs in the story that the last 55 minutes spent setting up. In fact, a handful of elements in the final 35 minutes of the film feel ill-prepared, including the film's minor villain (the criminally marginalized Eddie Marsan). Gilligan and Ngo make the near-fatal mistake of confusing necessary build-up for extraneous filler and vice versa in the case of Marsan's character. But that's partly why Hancock is such an impressive mess. 

In their script's shortcomings, which may or may not be due to creative tampering from higher-ups, Gilligan and Ngo have made the admirable mistake of assuming the audience can keep up with their sprawling story. The elements that would make the film's two seemingly mismatched main plotlines--the rehabilitation of Hancock (Will Smith) and the curious attraction between him and Mary Embrey (Charlize Theron)--are there but are presented in a subdued and, for a big-budget summer movie, rather subtle ways. The attraction between Mary and Hancock was arguably always there in the couple's furtive looks but it's kept relatively low-key by necessity because the revelation about who they really are would not provide the shock that it's meant to.

Still, the shock it does provide is not the kind one would want to usher in an, up to that point, well-paced and emotionally satisfying film's messy third act. The unpleasant shock of finding out where Gilligan and Ngo want to go with the material is inevitable considering the massive scope of the film they intended to deliver. They try to address too many different aspects of what makes a super-hero human and in their refusal to save some material for a sequel, spreads themselves too thin. 

The resolution of Mary and Hancock's relationship problems may tie together a lot of Hancock's central emotional issues--namely the self-loathing caused by his loneliness--but it does not take into account several key factors (three that come to mind are A) how does Jason Bateman's Ray Embrey feel about this betrayal B) what the eagle emblem represents to Hancock and C) who the smaller figure in Hancock's cave drawings is). Even within the context of such a tantalizingly epic finale, Gilligan and Ngo deserve praise for delivering, as a segment unto itself, a very satisfying finale. They also deserve a good scolding because as it is, Hancock's just an intriguing mess.

Note: Will Smith's non-starter of a performance bugged me. Part of the reason I feel short-changed by the film is because I had a very hard time believing Smith when he's talking about how lonely he is. He brought none of the depth he exhibited in I Am Legend or even showed fleetingly in The Pursuit of Happyness, content to sacrifice nothing for a role that demanded so much more. Without that spark, all I saw was Will Smith as Will Smith, a celebrity that should reasonably have no trouble ingratiating himself to the public unlike Hancock, who needs a lot more than just a PR makeover to rehabilitate his image.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

142) Double Take (2001)

142) Double Take (2001) Dir: George Gallo Date Released: January 2001 Date Seen: May 23rd, 2009 Rating: 1/5

Why? See my mention of this masterpiece in my forthcoming article on Graham Greene adaptations for The L Magazine.

141) Ministry of Fear (1944)

141) Ministry of Fear (1944) Dir: Fritz Lang Date Released: October 1944 Date Seen: May 23rd, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

Wholly engrossing in parts but the happy ending is really a downer. See my mention of it in my forthcoming piece on Graham Greene adaptation in The L Magazine.

Friday, May 22, 2009

140) Drag Me to Hell (2009)

140) Drag Me to Hell (2009) Dir: Sam Raimi Date Released: May 2009 Date Seen: May 21st, 2009 Rating; 3.75/5

After the first half made me feel dirty for enjoying something so, as I said on my Twitter, "happily puerile," I got into it in a big way. Still, Raimi doesn't have the excuse for camping it up he once did. See my review for The New York Press.

139) Terminator Salvation (2009)

139) Terminator Salvation (2009) Dir: McG Date Released: May 2009 Date Seen: May 21st, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

While Terminator Salvation, director McG's shotgun revival of the Terminator franchise, was not strictly necessary, it sets the stage for more interesting future developments, some of which are even capitalized on in this first installment of a planned trilogy.  Many action scenes feel rushed and the plot feels like a throw-away set-up in service to the story's obvious but moderately well-executed punchline. This makes it prey to the "wait and see" logic of a tentpole franchise where the first entry is the perfunctory first step towards its sequels' greater achievements. In other words, there's lots of energy, good acting and enough moody set-pieces and chase scenes to make it worthwhile. The sequel will be better but for now, this will do. 

Stray Note: I'm upset with this film's inoffensiveness not because I wanted a hard R rating with all the bloody trimmings that the first two came with but because I wanted the film to slow down long enough for me to get more than just the suggestion of dread that comes with the mass extermination of human life. Alas.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

138) Brighton Rock (1947)

138) Brighton Rock (1947) Dir: John Boulting Date Released: November 1951 Date Seen: May 21st, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

Exciting only insofar as it is creatively cruel. See my mention of it in my piece on Graham Greene adaptations in The L Magazine.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

137) Across the Bridge (1957)

137) Across the Bridge (1957) Dir: Ken Annakin Date Released: October 1957 Date Seen: May 20th, 2009 Rating: 4/5

Proves that in Greene's fiction, people are not necessarily "good" or "evil" but rather their actions. Schaffner's judgment and punishment is brutal but from it comes a small glimmer of humanity from an otherwise amoral and very memorable white-collar crook. See my mention of it in my piece on Graham Greene adaptation for The L Magazine.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

136) Went the Day Well? (1942)

136) Went the Day Well? (1942) Dir: Alberto Cavalcanti Date Released: June 1944 Date Seen: May 19th, 2009 Rating: 2.75/5

I prefer it when it's a moody and more importantly silent war movie and not a propaganda film for the war. See my mention of it in my forthcoming piece on Graham Greene film adaptations for The L Magazine.

RV!: Rashomon (1950)

RV!: Rashomon (1950) Dir: Akira Kurosawa Date Released: December 1951 Date Seen: May 19th, 2009 Rating: 4.75/5

The dual nature of the film's morality--both simple and complex--is made all the more entrancing by Kurosawa's graceful and mysterious camerawork. See my blurb in The L Magazine.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

135) New World Order (2009)

135) New World Order (2009) Dir: Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel Date Released: May 2009 Date Seen: May 17th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

For any other subject, the film's emphatic attitude would not be nearly so affecting but considering the film's subjects believe that executions and concentrations camps are coming back in style very soon, it's a welcome and potent message. See my review for The New York Press.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

134) Angels & Demons (2009)

134) Angels & Demons (2009) Dir: Ron Howard Date Released: May 2009 Date Seen: May 16th, 2009 Rating: 2/5

I'm disappointed by Angels and Demons, the second of director Ron Howard's adaptations of Dan "prosemaster" Brown's dull as paste historioglogical adventure stories. I wanted less, enough tasteless and/or senseless action to rubber-neck to but got more . In other words, Angels and Demons is bland but not so hilariously bad that I wanted to laugh very often. There are a few such scenes but they're few and far between. 

Howard's Angels and Demons is superior to his The Da Vinci Code (2006) because the clues are a bit more crude--much of them revolve around the direction statues are pointing in rather than obscure data--and unfold in a slightly more rigorous way. Here Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) has a deadline, forced to try to save one cardinal per hour until an (get ready) anti-matter bomb goes off, obliterating the Vatican. Still, Howard struggles with the same problem he had in The Da Vinci Code, namely trying to make Langdon's ceaseless monologues, which gracelessly relate through "info dumps" the intricacies of the plot and what's at stake, dynamic. It's not impossible but it sure looks that way when the filmmakers involved are clearly unwilling to pare down any of the film's long-winded wiki-speak.

But then again I'm also forced to ask the same question I had for The Da Vinci Code: what's the point? Angels and Demons merely reinforces Brown's simplistic message of needling Catholic dogmatic intolerance with viable but, as it's represented in the film, underdeveloped alternative theories. Science is this film's methodology of choice, coupled with a pronounced kind of multiculturalism. None of the international cast of actors hide their accents, not Ewan McGregor, not Stellan Skarsgard and certainly not Armin "show-stopper" Mueller-Stahl, as if their vocal differences could effectively contest the singular authority that the Pope propounds. 

Cute as it may be to have a doctor become the new pope, it's hard to swallow considering that we're living under the ultra-conservative reign of Pope Benedict XVI, a man who was once a Hitler Youth (I'm not joking; look it up). I would even be willing to accept this as an act of harmless fantastic rebellion were it not for the way that Mueller-Stahl apologizes for any and all wrong-headed, hypocritical actions undertaken by men of the clothe by saying "Religion is flawed because man is." Here screenwriters David Koepp and Akkiva Golsdman fumblingly try to  defuse the infantile defiance of Brown's novel but to no avail.

That's probably because there's no controversy to defuse here. One of his three tenets to writing a blockbuster hit may be to "piss people off," but if this is the best he's got, he's not really saying anything substantially defiant by rewriting Catholic history except: "Be open to possibility." I was--I believe that most people that go to see a film expecting it to be bad is always secretly hoping they'll be pleasantly surprised--but all I got was this lousy bit of blah.

Note: Can one argue that the disappearance of Hanks' mullet is also an ineffectual attempt to make his "controversial" hero more, well, nice-looking? I may be in the minority here but I kinda miss it. Business in the front, party in the back suited Forrest.

Friday, May 15, 2009

133) Dementia 13 (1963)

133) Dementia 13 (1963) Dir: Francis Ford Coppola Date Released: September 1963 Date Seen: May 15th, 2009 Rating: 2.25/5

Hard to feel much of anything while watching this slasher-cum-whodunnit. The characters aren't presented in such a way as to make them proper suspects--that would imply that they have personalities or characteristics that are developed enough to implicate them--and Coppola's script is so disorganized that it deprives the film of any tension. As such, Dementia 13's a neat collection of suggestive individual shots but not much else. Curious about The Terror (also 1963), a film Roger Corman is credited with but Coppola is supposed to have ghost-directed.

132) Darkman (1990)

132) Darkman (1990) Dir: Sam Raimi Date Released: August 1990 Date Seen: May 12th, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

Between Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness, writer/director Sam Raimi made Darkman, a superhero flick with no interest in admirable superheroics. As a "Sam Raimi film," Darkman follows a scarred scientist that suffers from a horrendous accident of literally explosive camp proportions. He uses a revolutionary machine cobbled together from computer banks and a giant Pinhead, he runs around post-accident in a black trench-coat and false faces that dissolve after 99 minutes and he's deathly afraid of his girlfriend (Frances McDormand)--the carnival scene is a classic example of Raimi's typically inept, celibate male protagonists. His comically creepy personality makes him the perfect Raimi hero/stand-in, one that is so absorbed in his own little world to notice that he rarely notices the rest of it.

Watching Darkman today in a post-Spiderman world, the best thing one can say about it is that it's a real treat for fans of his signature Stooges-style slapstick, filmed with bouncy, hyper-active Levinsonian camerawork. It also serves as yet another reminder of the excesses of Raimi's boisterous style. Where most filmmakers might blow off steam by making a light comedy between more heavy-handed fare, Raimi does the opposite, making a handful of serious films and twice as many that are infused with a zealously inaccessible sense of humor. Being over-the-top almost all the time, even just within a single film, breeds the suspicion that he's masking artistic ineptitude with cheap yuks, a status quo Darkman only serves to further reinforces.

I might've been able to warily embrace the high-flying zaniness of Darkman if it were not for the preponderance of scenes where it's obvious that Raimi and his four other screenwriters have more energy than ideas. The final few scenes in particular prematurely fizzle out, with some exceptions--riveting gun cam!--but when it wants to be, Darkman soars pretty high on its own fumes.

Additional Notes: Liam Neeson needs to be an action hero more often. Whether it's this film or Taken, which oddly enough whet my appetite for Darkman, I cannot help but be won over by his combination of gruffness and apologetic sincerity. 

The montage sequences, full of beautifully fragmented double exposures and claymation action, are technically some of the best stuff I've seen Raimi do. Crude based on the budget he's working with today but really seductive in an unpolished, gonzo kind of way.

131) Kabei, Our Mother (2008)

131) Kabei, Our Mother (2008) Dir: Yoji Yamada Date Released: May 2009 Date Seen: May 12th, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

Oddly prickly for Yamada but inferior in comparison to his softer period "weepies." See my review for the New York Press.

Monday, May 11, 2009

130) O'Horten (2008)

130) O'Horten (2007) Dir: Bent Hamer Date Released: May 2009 Date Seen: May 11th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

Really rather good but oh so cold. See my review for the New York Press.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

129) Bride Wars (2009)

129) Bride Wars (2009) Dir: Gary Winick Date Released: January 2009 Date Seen: May 10th, 2009 Rating: 1/5

Y'know, the people that made Bride Wars should have taken a page out of the Crank boys books and decided to get a lil wild and crazy and make a joke that's funny, catty or just plain offensive instead of just astoundingly numbing. Their film is so soul-crushingly stale that it doesn't even dare step out of line long enough to make a raunchy joke in a scene where the two brides have a dance-off at a (wait for it) male strip club for their respective bacheleorette parties. Even ignoring the creepy, shrewish and utterly unflattering roles these two women (Anne Hathaway and Kate Hudson) are given--apparently calling your fiance on being a pain in the ass is reason enough to split though everything else in their relationship seemed ship-shape--the film is so straitjacketed in its need to be nice and bitchy that it squanders every opportunity at yuks that it gets. I mean, for fuck's sake, Paul Scheer was in a montage sequence that moved at sub-Lurhmann speed without making me laugh. The ho-mance is upon us and I has a scared.

Note: Ladies, I assure you, I am straight and single, as if that weren't already apparent. This was just a bad, bad, no good lapse in judgment on my part. I mean, the siren call of bad shit was just too powerful and it's not like I rented the damn thing....oh god, I'm not a man anymore, am I?

128) I Stand Alone (1998)

128) I Stand Alone (1998) Dir: Gaspar Noe Date Released: March 1999 Date Seen: May 9th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

Abysmally black but frighteningly potent psychic break down dance party! Ok, maybe no dance party. See my forthcoming foray into new media territory when I babble about this over some clips with fellow polka enthusiast Michal Oleszczyk.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

127) Escape From Alcatraz (1979)

127) Escape From Alcatraz (1979) Dir: Don Siegel Date Released: June 1979 Date Seen: May 9th, 2009 Rating: 3.25/5

Beautiful when quiet, irritating when not. See my review for The L Magazine.

126) Star Trek (2009)

126) Star Trek (2009) Dir: J.J. Abrams Date Released: May 2009 Date Seen: May 9th, 2009 Rating: 4/5 

The best popcorn movie I'm likely to see this summer. See my review for (ee!) The House Next Door.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

125) The Brothers Bloom (2008)

125) The Brothers Bloom (2008) Dir: Rian Johnson Date Released: May 2009 Date Seen: May 6th, 2009 Rating: 1.75/5

Emotionally barren. See my review for the New York Press.

124) Pontypool (2008)

124) Pontypool (2008) Dir: Bruce McDonald Date Released: May 2009 Date Seen: May 6th, 2009 Rating: 3.25/5

Overblown but exciting genre experimentation. See my review for the New York Press.

Monday, May 4, 2009

123) Fighting (2009)

123) Fighting (2009) Dir: Dito Montiel Date Released: April 2009 Date Seen: May 2nd, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

The career paths of New York up-and-coming indie directors Peter Sollett and Dito Montiel diverge at their respective sophomore features. Sollett’s rich vision of a New York City that filmgoers rarely get to see—one outside of Manhattan—in Raising Victor Vargas (2002) disappeared in his dismal follow-up, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2008), a film that reduced Manhattan to hipster locales ala Monopoly. Montiel however made good on the promise he showed in his autobiographical debut A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006) in Fighting (2009), a gritty fairy tale about the pimps, thugs and losers that get chewed up by the city and after beating it, have to leave it in order to live happily ever after.

Montiel’s New York has sustained its charm because it remains true to the kind of mythic redefinition of the city as a den of wonderfully obnoxious, paranoid dreamers that are always puffing themselves up twice as large as they really are. In it, I see the Queens of my youth rendered into an all-too-believable caricature, the kind that’s more real than reality. In Fighting, everyone’s out to get something and even if they try to get it through the clichéd tropes of a post-Rocky genre pic, they do so through the myths and stereotypes that the various minority clans carry with them (never heard of a “Puerto Rican shower” before the film but I love the fact that I’m honestly not sure if it’s a real expression or not). It’s a colorful mix of home-grown demons and in-jokes that rejects the myth of the great American melting pot and instead champions the myth of the city as a ragged patchwork of conflicting symbols and stories that only touch one other through their proximity.

Montiel is so in love with the cliques of the city’s various minorities that he gives The Warriors a run for its money in its comic book factionalism. In Brooklyn there’s the Russians; in the Bronx, the Latinos; in Queens, the Chinese; in Manhattan, the Afro-Americans. This is the city as defined by the hard stares of people that look at non-natives as intruders, reversing the traditional presentation of the minority as “other” that has long pervaded Western fiction and hence criticism. These blocs make the city’s history but unlike the white kids in Sollett’s New York ala Nick and Norah, they won’t give it to you without a fight.

Enter our hero Shawn MacArthur (rising star Channing Tatum), a fugitive from Birmingham, Alabama and a quintessential Montiel hustler as defined by his manager Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard) as “someone that can’t win that wins.” Under Harvey’s wing, Shawn takes up bare-knuckle brawling so he doesn’t have to sell bootlegs of Harry Potter and umbrellas in Times Square. He’s not strictly skilled at scrapping nor is he consistently lucky—his first two fights are called off thanks to a water fountain and a tipped-over beer. Still, through his own tenacity, he wheedles his way into the company of Boarden, his rival Evan (Brian J. White) and his new girl Zulay (Zulay Valez) and gets his own self-fashioned introduction to The Big Apple.

There’s multiple levels of unreality throughout Fighting, but they all work in their own way in service of the film’s gritty, magically realistic vibe, even the creative decisions that are more than likely the product of studio tampering (I’m thinking specifically of the lack of blood and the latent homosexuality of Boarden’s character that looks to have likewise been deemed unnecessary in post). Little details, like the fact that the Empire Diner where Shawn wooes Zulay, hasn’t been around for about two years, suggesting that the film’s been in production for a long while now, make the film’s New York so endearing and adds more detail to the myth of Montiel as a similarly self-taught hustler.

Note: I cannot get over how satisfying the cast for the film was. Altagracia, Luis Guzman and all the rest mentioned above were really very wonderful.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

122) Moon (2009)

122) Moon (2009) Dir: Duncan Jones Date Released: June 2009 Date Seen: May 2nd, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

Good but not great. I'm a fan, not a big fan, but a fan. See my review for Twitch.

121) In the Loop (2009)

121) In the Loop (2009) Dir: Armando Iannucci Date Released: July 2009 Date Seen: May 1st, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

Very funny but not as harsh or direct in its political critique as it should've been. See my review for Twitch.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

120) Newsmakers (2009)

120) Newsmakers (2009) Dir: Anders Banke Not Yet Released Date Seen: April 30th, 2009 Rating: 2/5

I think I may need to rewatch Breaking News (2004) because, while I didn't like it first time around, I bet, after seeing this, I'll like it a whole bunch. See my review for Twitch.

119) Paintball (2009)

119) Paintball (2009) Dir: Daniel Benmayor Not Yet Released Date Seen: April 30th, 2009 Rating: 1.75/5

Dull and aggressively irritating, pseudo-serious slasher kerfluffle. See my review for Twitch.

118) Departures (2008)

119)  Departures (2008) Dir: Yôjirô Takita Date Released: May 2009 Date Seen: April 29th, 2009 Rating: 1.5/5
The horror. See my review for the New York Press.

117) Outrage (2009)

117) Outrage (2009) Dir: Kirby Dick Date Released: May 2009 Date Seen: April 28th, 2009 Rating: 2/5

I don't disagree with the anger, just the way it's expressed. See my review for The L Magazine.

116) X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)

116) X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009) Dir: Gavin Hood Date Released: May 2009 Date Seen: April 28th, 2009 Rating: 2.75/5

I had my fun. It was dirty and unclean fun but it was enough. See my piece for The Wrap for details.