Tuesday, June 30, 2009

203) The Devil Rides Out (1968)

203) The Devil Rides Out (1968) Dir: Terence Fisher Date Released: July 1968 Date Seen: June 30th, 2009 Rating: 3/5

Among the Hammer Horror titles that champion Christian ideals by fetishizing both religious and impious signs and rituals, Terence Fisher's The Devil Rides Out stands out. It's a frenzy of portents and made-up arcane rules that protests that the only way to fight perverted zealotry is with some seriously unkosher wizardry of their own. It's also a bit of a mess. Despite a strong opening sequence provided by Richard Matheson's adapted script, the film runs mostly on fumes.

Neither Matheson's script, based on Dennis Wheatley's novel, nor Fisher's clumsy direction provide any sense of dread to the silly and overtaxed scenes of malevolent conjuring. There are some fun isolated images, like the summoning of an oddly transfixing goat-man version of Satan, but absolutely no consistency or signs of polished execution to the project. You know you're in trouble when a leering, half-naked black guy materializes out of a pentacle accompanied by a cloud of smoke for reasons that are never explained.  

What carries the film through its bare collection of encounters is its comically strident attitude towards the perversion of Christianity as the one true faith of conservative families. The film's plot revolves  around the awakening of a bachelor, a bachelorette and a nuclear family to the, to quote Christopher Lee's character, "very real and very deadly" threat of Devil worshippers. Unlike most Hammer films, Lee here plays the Van Helsing-type Peter Cushing normally plays. He's a paternalistic theological authority that knows more than he should about how black magic works abut only because he needs to fight it. 

The biggest tool in Lee's arsenal is however not his knowledge of the many and varied diabolical ceremonies but rather his conviction. Leon Greene, who serves as Lee's initially skeptical protege and our cipher as a clueless layman, is at first only told by Lee that he needs to wait for proof of his suspicions. He's not told what to expect, just that he needs to trust Lee and have faith that eventually he too will understand the necessity of Lee's work. 

Lee's kind of conjuring is preventative, more modest and hence has no visual manifestation while the kind his opponents use relies on flashy avatars. Lee's character is essentially fighting fire with fire, pitting one kind of largely invisible fanaticism against a kind that begs to be seen to be believed. That difference in methodology makes you want to root for the bad guy because at least with them, what you see is what you get. If only Matheson and Fisher worked a little harder to build better baddies.

Monday, June 29, 2009

202) Where a Good Man Goes (1999)

202) Where a Good Man Goes (1999) Dir: Johnnie To Not Yet Released Date Seen: June 29th, 2009 Rating: 1.75/5

There's a good reason why Johnnie To has not seriously pursued making domestic dramas. Where a Good Man Goes, the story of a mercurial gangster (Lau Ching-wan, of course) that falls in love with a single mom (Ruby Wong), sinks underneath the weight of preposterous conservative ideas about the essential "good"ness of a potential male suitor. In the film, our anti-hero gives us no good reason as to why he should be given a chance to win our heroine's heart. He uses her son to get to her, abducting him so that he can play with him. This is after he berates her and beats up several cab drivers, an act which she apparently has not just disavowed to the police but to herself because she eventually allows him to play with Junior. Jim Anderson he's not.

 Lau's character also almost rapes Wong's and holds up a bank to get the money from his abusive ex to pay off her debts. The fact that he stops himself from doing anything more than ripping her clothes off (after he hears her kid calling for her, no less) and is stealing for her makes everything all right. When family matters call, apparently anything goes. Yikes.

Additionsal Notes: I would've rated this tedious film lower were it not for Suet Lam's larger role in the film. More mole, please.

Lau Ching-wan's lackluster performance confirms my suspicions about his extremely limited range. He puts nothing on the line, showing that he is emotionally wounded by covering his eyes with his hands instead of actually emoting. Ah well; we'll always have Mad Detective.

201) Expect the Unexpected (1998)

201) Expect the Unexpected (1998) Dir: Patrick Yau and Wai Ka-Fai Not Yet Released Date Seen: June 28th, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

The accomplished scenes of screwball romance in Expect the Unexpected come as a bit of a shock after The Longest Nite, a gritty, sweaty and totally grim neo-noir that both Yau and Wai worked on that same year. They have a breezy humor to them and a sense of optimism that few other Milkyway films that are not strictly romcoms have. In them, tension arises from whether or not good cop Ken (Simon Yam) or bad cop Sam (Lau Ching-Wan) will make the opportunities they need to get the girl they both pine for. This is a far cry from the story's investigation overplot, which climaxes in a final shoot-out whose extreme nature feels like a dark reminder of just whose universe we're working in. 

The bleakness of the film's ending intrigues me because not just because it creates a beautiful tableaux of violence worthy of its Peckinpah influence but because of something Wai recently said to me when I interviewed him. He said that: 
"Death is unavoidable so I think that if there’s some change in the way that I’ve [approached the] topic when I was young, maybe I was more poetically thinking about it. Maybe evil cannot beat the good ultimately. As I get older, my thinking has become, 'Well, sometimes you can choose.'"
That choice is crucial because here, the characters squander theirs and in so doing, they lose all of their chances, which perhaps makes the final grisly shoot-out punishment for not recognizing their potential. It's a damning finale but one that strikes me as a weird kind of divine authorial tough love.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

200) Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988)

200) Return of the Living Dead Part II (1988) Dir: Ken Wiederhorn Date Released: January 1988 Date Seen: June 27th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

Writer/director Ken Wiederhorn's entry in the Return of the Living Dead franchise is happily self-aware about its nature as a B-movie sequel that essentially rehashes the superior first film's plot. A couple of the original film's cast members return here and one of them even winks at the audience by saying that he has an eerie feeling of deja vu. Wiederhorn knows well enough how to manipulate the staid formula he's working in, milking generic cliches for all their worth and pulls off quite a number of very good parodic jokes, including a jab at Michael Jackson's "Thriller," and fun make-up effects. A worthy sequel.

Friday, June 26, 2009

199) Shallow Grave (1994)

199) Shallow Grave (1994) Dir: Danny Boyle Date Released: February 1995 Date Seen: June 26th, 2009 Rating: 4/5

Dry as its theatrical, Hitchcockian set-up may be, Danny Boyle's Shallow Grave delivers a ridiculously satisfying and particularly nasty grand guignol finale. Bit by bit, its three self-absorbed young protags are driven mad by the exciting and potentially fatal possibilities that present themselves after a prospective flatmate dies suddenly and leaves behind a valise full of cash. The trio's ability to choose their fates from a number of multiple choice decisions becomes their undoing (How to keep an eye on everything? One roomie or the other? Draw straws to do the deed?). The film's winning combination of black humor and tension comes from Boyle's ability to make that sea of choices seem comic at first--their trip to buy shovels and hammers to dispose of the body macabrely sends up their pampered, omnivorous consumer mentalities--and then oppressive as they become decided by paranoia and greed. Definitely one of my Boyle's most consistent and sustainable flicks.

198) The Mirror (1975)

198) The Mirror (19975) Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky Date Released: August 1983 Date Seen: June 26th, 2009 Rating: 3/5

Frustrating as all get-out but it has its moments and is beautiful throughout. See my mention of it in my piece on Tarkovsky's visual leitmotifs for The Onion's New York Decider.

197) Public Enemies (2009)

197) Public Enemies (2009) Dir: Michael Mann Date Released: July 2009 Date Seen: June 25th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

In thinking about Public Enemies, Michael Mann's character study of John Dillinger, I can't help but admire the accomplished stylist's naive dedication to delineating the legend of the notorious Depression-era bank robber from the man. Mann's recent preoccupation with the verite sheen that DV cameras can give even a period piece strikes gold here, providing a worthy counterpoint to the grandiose self-manufactured fables of Jesse James in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Both it and Public Enemies present their anti-heroes as romantic figures eager to prove their towering stature as the wanted legends the media turned them into. That's where their similarities end. Mann's film insists that a line, no matter how subtle, can be made in showing how Dillinger aspired to be more mythic than human.

The John Dillinger of Public Enemies is both capable of fulfilling the role he makes for himself and well aware of its artificial nature. He immediately impresses us as a man of ruthless action. When breaking out of prison, he walks out with supreme confidence and turns on a dime to return fire to the prison guards once they realize something's up. That introduction is important because for the bulk of the movie, Depp sweet talks his way through encounters rather than using that foregrounding brute force. Similarly, his incessant barrage of charming one-liners is a double-edge sword, something meant to endear us to him but also remind us that the man is performing all the time.

With that in mind, Johnny Depp plays a great Dillinger, transitioning wonderfully from his garbled singing in Tim Burton's Sweeney Todd to mumbled dialogue in this film that betrays his silky small talk. Through his taut body language, he exudes the pensive air of a man that boasts about having done many horrible things but secretly dreads having to do them again. Though Melvin Purvis (a steely Christian Bale), the G-man assigned to capture Dillinger is more of a typical Mann's man--a troubled man-of-action that can identify a little too much with his immoral opposite--Depp's Dillinger brings with it a kind of raggedness that handily undermines his bad boy charms.

At the same time, Mann lends Dillinger a counter-intuitive integrity by omitting the more tawdry bits of his story. You cannot separate the man that broke out of prison with a blacked-up bar of soap from the man famed for his, er, sexual prowess without excising an integral part of Dillinger's character (It was 20 inches long! Preserved in The Smithsonian! Had its own holster?!). 

To keep Dillinger's story simple, crucial details are omitted and/or fudged around, undermining the film's key concept of showing how the "real" Dillinger created the Dillinger we know and love. Insisting that he was so lovesick for his on-again, off-again love interest Billie Frechette (Marion Cotillard) that she was the last thought on his mind is folly. In reality, he died while accompanying Polly Hamilton, his girlfriend of the moment, and  Ana Cumpanas, the mythic "lady in red," to the movies.  Within the film's storytelling framework, Dillinger and Frechette's love interest subplot makes sense and is effective thanks to Cotillard's wildcat act but once its introduced to the harsh air of the outside world, it tarnishes an otherwise exemplary bit of pulp introspection.

196) Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

196) Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009) Dir: Michael Bay(?) Date Released: June 25th, 2009 Rating: 0.5/5

Judging by the vitriolic onslaught of critical rancor that Michael Bay's latest film incurred, I was initially tempted to give the film a chance. I did this partly out of sheer spite for what I though to be a snobbish response to what could only be at worst a mediocre film and partly out of a misguided morbid solidarity for the filmmaker's earlier works.* That having been said, I now know better. 

Bay's film is just as obnoxious, racist, sexist and unfunny as everyone including Roger Ebert have said. Bay and his screenwriters--Kurtzman and Orci, I believe, were brainwashed after writing Star Trek; it's the only logical conclusion--have made a film hellbent on chucking all that PC nonsense about treating women like people and black people like something slightly more human than Amos & Andy 2.0 out the biggest window available (IMAX!!!). They know they can get away with talking about how hot "bitches"**, cars and really big explosions are and so they do. It's hardly an acquired taste but it is one that will obviously make money. I shrug my shoulders.

Still, I cannot help but feel that at some level that Transformers 2 is some kind of revenge, a massive cinematic prank the likes of which we may never begin to comprehend. This fleeting impression struck me as soon as I saw the scene where the little Laboeuf boy was about to be raped by a robo-hottie with an overeager phallo-metallic tongue--all the better to create disturbing and new cavities in our hero's pre-pubescent body, no doubt. Using my Batman-like logic*** I thought: "sick joke....sick joke....TSUKAMOTO?!" And it all made sense: this then is the upcoming second sequel to Shinya Tsukamoto's Tetsuo, the Iron Man, the one wrapped up in rumors and secret code names

Before you knock this admittedly wild and crazy idea, think about it for a second. Transformers 2 is basically a series of volcanic explosions of the Beef's macho id. It's a perfect caricature of the All-American male's varied persecution complexes and repressed rape fantasies. The film's laundry list of psychological issues include: fear of homo-robotic penetration, fear of robot-on-human metallic intrusion, fear of women--look out, she's a robo-slut--fear of commitment, fear of abandonment, fear of the government--they're out to stop you from saving the world--and oh so much more. If this is true, and I really hope it is, there's no way to excuse Tsukamoto for this kind of cruelty--the film is a spot-on Bay send-up but is also just plain mean-spirited. Tsukamoto, you magnificent bastard, I've read your book!

*I think I like The Rock and Armageddon but I don't remember either well enough to know

**I forget the name of the Autobot that calls a woman this but it's in there somewhere

***Circa the Adam West movie

Additional note: I loved seeing Warren Ellis as the curmudgeonly old Welshman-bot that's "too old for this crep." Good casting decision.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

195) Manhunter (1986)

195) Manhunter (1986) Dir: Michael Mann Date Released: August 1986 Date Seen: June 25th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

The look and feel of frenetic dynamism in writer/director Michael Mann's Manhunter is the key to understanding why it's probably the celebrated American stylist's most striking film. His fastidious attention to visual detail embeds the bulk of the film's meaning in its ever-shifting look. It, like the film's protagonist and villain, are always changing, transforming, "becoming" something but never elaborating at length through heavy-handed dialogue what that something is. Mann's investment in the lurid neon colors and art deco furnishings details shows off his key interest in the film: a psychology of imagistic immediacy. 

There is no overarching visual schema uniting the various scenes in Manhunter, a sign of Mann's dedication to representing investigator Will Graham's  (William Petersen) gradual penetration into the psyche of a killer, played with surprising restraint by Tom Noonan. Like Graham's search, Manhunter unfolds in dribs and drabs, segmented into individual parts that do not cohere into either a sensible aesthetic or even a narrative that ties together all of its loose strands. 

Eventually, even Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox), the infamous intellectual cannibal made famous by Anthony Hopkins, is lost in the shuffle. He, like so many of the film's other carefully synthesized images--the tiger, the mirrors, etc.--are used and then never returned to. They're just disposable bread crumbs on the path to Graham's understanding of how and why the so-called "Tooth Fairy" chooses his victims and hence not worth revisiting.

Mann's need to change from one scene to the next shows that, like Doug Liman after him, he's more interested in individual actions and motions than in any overarching bigger picture. That troublesome but compelling credo is most salient during during Manhunter's more violent scenes, like Graham's encounter with a jogger or his confrontation with the "Tooth Fairy." 

Mann's fixation with slow-motion in the latter is made all the more dreamy by the film's sensory depriving soundtrack which blasts "Inagaddadavida" while Noonan blasts his way through policemen and Petersen hurdles through a wall-sized window. There's nothing to ground it to reality, let alone the next scene, which abruptly brings us back to Graham's happy beachside home with his wife and child. That startling return to normalcy reminds us of the miasma of clues and horrors Graham is forcibly pushing past to get back home. Being a Mann protagonist, he's so busy poring over the details of the case that he only really snaps out of that fog of lurid details when he goes into action.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

194) The Jericho Mile (1979)

194) The Jericho Mile (1979) Dir: Michael Mann Date Released (TV): March 1979 Date Seen: June 24th, 2009 Rating: 2.75/5

Perhaps there was something semi-realistic about the slang that the Folsom prison inmates spit out in Michael Mann and co-writer Patrick Nolan's The Jericho Mile in its time but I tend to doubt that their preposterous tough guy lingo just has not aged well. Though it does the film a small amount of justice by enunciating the cliquish nature of prison life, there is absolutely no way to take the film seriously because of its "jive" dialogue. It is not necessarily factually inaccurate to have contemporary prisoners say things like, "Hey, hey, hey! Boogaloo!" but that does not necessarily mean that it's convincing. 

Like many of the little visual details that Mann doggedly zooms in on  to provide the project with a level of authenticity, mostly tattoos and graffiti murals, The Jericho Mile strains like a constipated man praying for diarrhea to show that it understands the plight of its protagonists. How a tacky melodrama about the triumph of the human spirit over his own isolation, one that culminates in the breaking of a stopwatch, can do that is beyond me but apparently "boogaloo" is the nouvelle verite. 

By that token, what's endearing about The Jericho Mile is its painfully naive dedication to canned racial conflicts and pulpy insights into how the prison system really works (Why would anybody trust Brian Dennehy with something as important as arranging conjugal visits? Why, I ask, why?). This is the same kind of pleasure you can get from something like Bad Boys (1983), a prison drama about two feuding teenage jailbirds that makes up for its lack of believability with lots of testosterone-driven soap operatics. The key difference between the two is that The Jericho Mile's big release of tension comes from Mann's early fascination with slow-motion photoraphy, specifically in highlighting Peter Strauss' every bulging vein and rippling muscle. Trashy, silly but secretly hypnotic: now that's a show worth watching. 

193) The Sacrifice (1986)

193) The Sacrifice (1986) Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky Date Released: November 1986 Date Seen: June 24th, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

The combination of Tarkovsky's preoccupations with Bergman's yields a strange and ungainly mix of ideas and aesthetics that isn't as effective as it should be. Intriguing but only fleetingly beautiful. See my mention of it on my forthcoming piece on Tarkovsky's visual leitmotifs for The Onion's New York Decider.

192) Brüno (2009)

192) Brüno (2009) Dir: Larry Charles Date Released: July 2009 Date Seen: June 23rd, 2009 Rating: 4.25/5

A better prank film. See my review for The House Next Door.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

191) El Rey de la Montana (2007)

191) El Rey de la Montana (2007) Dir: Gonzalo Lopez-Gallago Date Released (DVD): January 2009 Date Seen: June 21st, 2009 Rating: 2/5

The promise that El Rey de la Montana shows as an obscure entry in the ever-burgeoning subgenre of "survival horror," is dashed by the film's final third, in which it becomes a petty and didactic slasher film. The revelation that the source of the bullets that rain down on Quim (Leonardo Sbaraglia) and Bea (Maria Valverde) like a force of nature is not just human but (SPOILERSPOILERSPOILERFUCKINRABBLEPLEXSPOILER) also a pair of kids pulls the film into deadly boring territory. 

The fact that kids are doing the killing is apparently a big deal to Lopez-Gallago. He shows us events from their POV, even going so far as to show us what's going through their heads with a first-person shooter camera. They aren't just beastly little thugs, they're in need of rehabilitation. Just before Quim snaps one of their necks, he embraces his attacker, as if to show that he forgives him. After the film's preceding brisk and moderately enjoyed buckled-down tone, that kind of forgiveness is poisonous.

190) Seraphine (2008)

190) Seraphine (2008) Dir: Martin Provost Date Released: June 2009 Date Seen: June 21st, 2009 Rating: 3.25/5

For a film whose plot is grounded in a biopic formula, Seraphine, the story of the art and times of painter Seraphine de Senlis, enjoys infrequent moments of quiet intensity and beauty. Provost has an eye for composition and capably employs light and shadows to great effect. When the film quiets down long enough to be about the abstract beauty of the character's actions, it's really quite arresting (the very last scene is especially transfixing). 

More importantly, thanks to comedienne Yolande Moreau's ambling performance, even the scenes where the character emotes through shrill declamations and succumbs to the Drama of the biopic genre are made a little more tolerable. She carries an emotional weariness and a gnarled air of introspection about her that make it seem as if she's already said everything she's declaring aloud at least three times before in her head. Here, Moreau has confirmed my firm belief that she's one of the more overlooked talents in front of and behind the camera, though the role itself is merely a more sensitive treatment  of the self-congratulatory "full retard" roles that drown out a capable performer's quiet intensity with bathetic over-emoting.

Note: Though I felt the film was filled with intriguing visual nuances, I'm upset with Provost and co-writer Marc Abdelnour for their inability to see the forest for the trees. Though they prove themselves to be quite capable of leaving many of the dots in their story unconnected, they also do not know when its best to pull back and let suggestion tell us who the character is. Perhaps if they had opted to write a more experimental narrative, a possibility they occasionally flirt with but never fully embrace, the film would not have been or felt like it was 130 minutes long. 

189) The Longest Nite (1998)

189) The Longest Nite (1998) Dir: Johnnie To, Wai Ka-Fai and Patrick Yau Not Yet Released Date Seen: June 20th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

While I couldn't say why immediately, it was obvious that the five scenes that Patrick Yau directed before The Longest Nite were different from the superb noirish framework Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai gave them. Yau's scenes all revolve around spontaneous violence, creating jaw-dropping moments of insane black humor thanks to their frighteningly abrupt and volatile nature. To and Wai probe the nature of those scenes with a tangled plot that could only come from them (the film's central metaphor of being a rubber ball, full of restless motion but not being able to control where you go, is very much Wai's cinematic worldview distilled). Moody and dark, the film is yet another exceptional transitional film in To's career, a movie that like Hero Never Dies (also 1998) pushes him from his so-so earlier films to the string of great films that he continues to crank out today.

Note: Tony Leung Chiu-wai was seriously miscast here. The film can be broken down into four quarters. First and last are when the film goes off-the-rails and requires Tony to be an unhinged tough guy capable of matching Lau Ching-wan's effortless attitude; the middle half is a traditional whodunnit plot. Leung does well with the that latter chunk but is never really convincing in the former. These extended bookend scenes are crucial in changing Leung's character from a mild-mannered detective into a vicious character capable of anything, just like Lau's character. Leung instead shows that he's best when he's playing characters that look breathless and confused all the time, which is nowhere near the enigmatic anti-hero the role required.

Friday, June 19, 2009

188) Stalker (1979)

188) Stalker (1979) Dir: Andrei Tarkovsky Date Released: October 1982 Date Seen: June 19th, 2009 Rating: 4.5/5

Wow, too great movies in a week's-time. That's pretty amazing. See my mention of this amazing film in my piece on visual leitmotifs in Tarkovsky's films for The Onion's New York Decider.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

187) Written By (2009)

187) Written By (2009) Dir: Wai Ka-Fai Not Yet Released Date Seen: June 18th, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

Though it's about a family that uses writing to cope with loss, Written By, screenwriter and sometimes director Wai Ka-Fai's latest film, does not have a particularly memorable plot. The film's characters ping-pong back-and-forth so many times between living their lives, creating fiction that mirrors their lives and becoming literally absorbed by that fiction that eventually any coherent narrative thread becomes lost and all that's left is a prevailing feeling of grief. When he's not shuttling us between repetitive confrontations between the living and the fictive dead, Wai proves that he's capable of immersing us in the oppressive emotions of someone dealing with survivor's guilt. Those sentiments are what linger on after the end credits roll, which is fitting considering that the film begins with a quote about how loved ones live on in our memories.

RV!: Final Destination (2000)

RV!: Final Destination (2000) Dir: James Wong Date Released: March 2000 Date Seen: June 18th, 2009 Rating: 3.25/5

In some parallel universe, where being deadly afraid of everything and nothing is how children are instructed on how to live their lives, James Wong's Final Destination is being taught in Driver's Ed. As a cautionary tale for adolescents that think they're going to live forever, the characters in it are so delightfully paranoid that watching them get picked off one-by-one becomes weirdly transfixing even in the face of laughably horrid dialogue and gaping plot holes.

 The kids in Final Destination are wound so tight that they're not even punished because they want to have fun but rather because they think they're invincible, a thought straight out of a corny video about how just a couple of beers can lead to MURDER. There's zero parental supervision for the film's teenage protagonists, all of whom cheat Death after they miss their flight to Paris. Still, because they all jumped ship in a panic after Alex Browning (Devon Sawa) warns them that the plane will explode, they must be punished. 

All of them have an unmistakably cocky air about them, even Clear Rivers (Ali Larter), the most introverted of wallflowers--"Gives me a rush. Doing something I'm not supposed to," she says as she breaks into the morgue. As they dodge faulty household appliances and stray buses, the one thought buzzing about in their heads is, to quote Alex, "I don't have a narcissistic deity complex;" I'm just a teen. Death to all high schoolers!

Note: Kudos to the casting director that chose Tony Todd to deliver a charmingly hammy soliloquy about "death's sadistic design." His Vincent Price-esque over-acting is unmistakable and in the case of this film, indispensable. That scene almost makes me forgive the decision to cast Sawa, whose ineffectual squirming in this film just makes me want to slap him.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

186) Love Exposure (2008)

186) Love Exposure (2008) Dir: Sion Sono Not Yet Released Date Seen: June 17th, 2009 Rating: 4.25/5

The very last scene is kind of a letdown but the rest is a weird saga of misanthropy and bizarre hope in the face of absurd odds. See my mention of it in my piece on Japan Cuts for The Onion's New York Decider.

185) Crime or Punishment?!? (2008)

185) Crime or Punishment?!? (2008) Dir: Keralino Sandorovich Not Yet Released Date Seen: June 17th, 2009 Rating: 4/5

A big step up from Sandorovich's last film, Gumi, Chocolate, Pine, which was shown at last year's "Japan Cuts." See my mention of this one in my piece on this year's "Japan Cuts" program at Japan Society for The Onion's New York Decider.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

184) Yoroi Samurai Zombie (2008)

184) Yoroi Samurai Zombie (2008) Dir: Tak Sakaguchi Not Yet Released Date Seen: June 16th, 2009 Rating: 2/5

Yoroi Samurai Zombie, Tak Sakaguchi's second film behind the camera, doesn't do much with its atmospheric setting, heavily overworked fog machines and stuntmen--at least, it appeared like they were stuntmen based on the fact that we see two scenes of physical violence three times each, as if to prove that what just happened really happened. The premise is laughably simple--a family get kidnapped by a group of robbers and are then all terrorized by an undead samurai. It could've been fun but instead, it was just mostly a lot of dull meandering and neat make-up effects. I laughed a couple times at its sporadic knack for non-sequitur humor but man, this movie makes Be a Man! Samurai School look restrained and moderately successful. 

183) Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980)

183) Encounters of the Spooky Kind (1980) Dir: Sammo Hung Kam-Bo Not Yet Released Date Seen: June 15th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

The omnipresent perspiration on Sammo Hung Kam-Bo's face in Encounters of the Spooky Kind are a testament to just how hard the man worked at switching between the various different hats he wore during the making of the film. As the film's star/choreographer/co-writer/director, Hung whirls about at the speed of sweat, carrying the film from its infrequent dips to its numerous highs and back, ending on a hilariously wrong high note (warning: don't cheat on Sammo). Though he wisely features the skill and talent of his co-stars with fight scenes that showcase their own athletic ability and comic timing, when the camera's off him, the film almost visibly slows down. Through his perfection of the happy-go-lucky persona colleague and childhood friend Jackie Chan made a career out of, he delivers in spurts and sprints a delirious kind of physical comedy that celebrates the unwittingly brave loser.

Hung plays "Courageous" Cheung, an oblivious slob too chicken to turn down a challenge to his honor, forcing him to stay in a haunted temple for a night. When he accepts the dare, deceptively handed down by a crony of the black magician hired to kill him, Cheung is not just defending his reputation as a brave guy, he's also doing it out of a weird fear that he's going to be called out on his cheapness if he backs out--"Ten taels?" he wails, as if thinking about that chunk of silver caused the amount to leave his already turned-out pockets. Worse still, he's so wrapped up in defending his ego that he doesn't even see the connection between the challenge and his adulterous wife, whose lover hired the black magician.

The big joke of the film is that Cheung is hardly ever really "courageous" but rather just accidentally adept at tucking his tail between his legs and running. The scene where he flees at a breakneck pace from a corpse that plays the old mirror gag that Groucho, Harpo and Lucille Ball perfected on him is wonderful because he doesn't even see that he's running into the waiting arms of the police that are chasing him (did I mention that he's been framed by his wife's lover for her "death?"). The man cannot catch a break even when he's handily defending himself, frantically ducking and weaving the blows of a hopping corpse during his second night at the temple--he's too dazed to say no when the stakes to 50 taels of silver for a second night.

The crowning achievement on Hung's manic performance however is largely thanks to his pronounced gut. While it may seem crass to say that his love handles makes him funnier, the simple truth is that his insatiable appetite really does make him a near-perfect fall guy. After an altercation at a foodstand breaks out between the vendor and his wife, Cheung continues to shovel food in his face after his friends have already hightailed it away. He has no self-restraint and hence no way to know how to act, making his style of cluelessly bumbling about a distinct comic fingerprint.

Monday, June 15, 2009

182) The Eternal Evil of Asia (1995)

182) The Eternal Evil of Asia (1995) Dir: Man Kei Chin Not Yet Released Date Seen: June 15th, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

I'm kind of in awe of Man Kei Chin's skill and facility at making Peter Jackson look like a piker at his own game of "adult" schlock horror. The Eternal Evil of Asia is just as cheesy, sleazy and certainly spazzy as any of Jackson's earlier low-budget comedic splatterfests. Here, Chin, an exploitation-meister with titles like The Fruit is Swelling and The Forbidden Legend: Sex and Chopsticks under his belt, formidably capitalizes on the seedier taboos surrounding Thailand and black magic that many of Hong Kong's Category III artisans have fallen in love with. Unlike something like The Boxer's Omen, which has great respect for the basis in prayer and religion that that witchcraft stems from,* The Eternal Evil of Asia is all about sex and ghosts.

Chin's film has such an abundance of crass sex-related visual gags that it handily makes you wonder just how serious the film was originally supposed to be as every laugh the film scores feels inappropriate. Turning a horndog visiting Thailand for a bachelor party into a literal dickhead is just the tip of the libidinal iceberg. Once you get to the black magician battle that involves a spell where a couple copulate in mid-air with a bomb blast accompanying each of their succeeding thrusts, you're flying so high over the type that you'll be lucky to find any kind of grounding logic to hook onto.** And that's not even counting the film's climactic ghost rape scene, complete with an assailant that looks like a cross-between Kevin Bacon in Hollow Man and a Predator, which involves gymnastic-level contortions, a chandelier and one of the most awkward blow jobs on film. 

*At least, it nominally pays lip service to Buddhism just before it goes absolutely nuts for wax corpses and projectile fluids.

**There's certainly a lot of to do in the film about domestic fears of promiscuity and loyalty--mom and dad are zombies now! Try that ramen, son!--but in an exploitation-fest of such explosive proportions, I don't think it really matters.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

181) The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

181) The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) Dir: Joseph Sargent Date Released: June 14th, 2009 Rating: 4/5

Spike Lee's Inside Man owes a great deal to director Joseph Sargent's adaptation of John Godey's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three. While Lee's film capitalizes on the concept that ethnic difference is that much more salient in post 9/11 New York City, Sargent's film wisely insists that that was always the case. Characters with accents, whether it's Robert Shaw's hostage-taker, the little old Jewish hostage or Walter Matthau's transit police officer, do almost all of the film's real talking. Pelham in that sense is that much more refreshing because it does not use his knowing view of the city as ethnic stew to mark its territory.

At the same time, the city the film is set in isn't really important. What's most compelling about The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is its rapt attention to the case's procedurial plot, not the embellishing contextual details. The constant interchange between Matthau and Shaw and everyone in between with access to a microphone is riveting because it's just one long game of tennis: constant motion is the trick. The conversation has to keep the hostage situation moving toward its resolution no matter what, a very workmanlike approach and a very effective one, too.

180) Up (2009)

180) Up (2009) Dir: Peter Docter and Bob Peterson Date Released: May 2009 Date Seen: June 14th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

Here's the thing with me and Pixar movies: I like them but I can't help but feel old when I watch them. These films treat don't really treat me like an adult but also not quite like a kid, but rather something in-between. I have no trouble getting into the kiddy aspects of Up, the chase scenes, the talking animals, most of the jokes with Russell (Jordan Nagai). It's the melodrama of the film that bugs me. Watching Ed Asner's lonely old widow get over the loss of his beloved wife by letting go of the home they built together and having new adventures is sweet but sappy sweet. Pixar movies don't really sweep me off my feet but they are fun and always capably manipulative--which is my curmudgeonly way of saying, "I understand why people like it but I can't help but feel out of place when it comes to sentimentality that tries to sell an adult message about grief in a bite-size, kid-friendly way." Now The Amazing Screw-On Head: there's a cartoon I can get behind.

179) Electra Glide in Blue (1973)

179) Electra Glide in Blue (1973) Dir: James William Guercio Date Released: August 1973 Date Seen: June 13th, 2009 Rating: 4.5/5

If there were any justice in the universe, people would only remember Dennis Hopper's Easy Rider as a footnote in their larger collective memory of James William Guercio's vastly superior Electra Glide in Blue. Guercio and screenwrite Robert Boris respond to Hopper's empty-headed celebration of alternative lifestyles with a compassionate, intelligent and expertly assembled portrait of the male authority figure at odds with his environment. 

"Big" John Wintergreen (Robert Blake) is a motorcycle cop that oversees a ceaseless stretch of road somewhere in Arizona. He's at once a zealous tyrant--he uses an Easy Rider poster for target practice and hassles a fellow Vietnam vet looking for a sympathetic ear--and a bored bottom-feeder on the chain of command, desperately seeking a way to get promoted to a desk job, where he'll be "paid to think." His big chance comes when the body of a local geezer is found, giving him an irrational cause to suspect foul play, the kind that warrants an official investigation and might speed him along on his way to a promotion.

Once Wintergreen gets his shot, it becomes apparent that he's bound to be disappointed with the detective position he's been pining for. The bigshot city cop that takes Wintergreen under his wing, Harve Pool (Mitch Ryan), is an uptight, self-righteous bigot. He beats up hippies just because he's impatient, warns his colleagues against "niggers waiting in the bushes" and freezes up at the unfounded suggestion of adultery that his wife puts in his head. Pool's such an irascible martinet that he could be from Easy Rider save for the fact that he's just as psychically scarred as Wintergreen.

Ryan's devious actions and his well-timed delivery of a handful of long-winded speeches are punctuated by a deeply unsettling silence. That eerie quiet reminds us that Pool's prejudice and outbursts are direct products of his vacuum of an environment. Like most of the characters in the film, he blusters on and on in the hope of filling the pitiless void that enshrouds the valley he and Wintergreen patrol. Here, the American countryside is the real enemy, an indifferent land completely separate from the one that John Ford romanticized in his horse operas. Mind you, this is three decades before Cormac McCarthy came to the same conclusion in No Country for Old Men.

That kind of inescapable fear makes Wintergreen's potentially high-handed rejection of Pool and the corruption he embodies eerily tranquil. The speech he lays down on Pool just after he hightails it back to his lonely stretch of road is swallowed up by his uncaring surroundings, an emptiness that can't be bested by self-righteousness. Even at film's end, when he proves that he's not like Pool, he's struck down by sheer bad luck. All alone and with no one to recognize him when he does the right thing, Wintergreen is one of the most memorable American anti-heroes.

Note: I loved Blake's performance here, especially he way that he fumbles over his words and his oblivious smile. 

Saturday, June 13, 2009

178) 20th Century Boys Chapter 2: The Last Hope

178) 20th Century Boys: The Last Hope (2009) Dir: Yukihiko Tsutsumi Not Yet Released Date Seen: June 12th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

Though I initially had some problems with the film's lack of common sense logic at times, the pervading sense of dread and paranoia really worked me over. See my mention of this in my forthcoming piece on this year's "Japan Cuts" program at Japan Society for The Onion's New York Decider.

177) 20th Century Boys (2008)

177) 20th Century Boys (2008) Dir: Yukihiko Tsutsumi Not Yet Released Date Seen: June 12th, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

From what I'd heard from NYAFF overlord Grady Hendrix, I was expecting this one to be an unbearably long set-up for a superior sequel, like a weird reversal of the quality of the Death Note live-action movies. Boy, was I wrong. See my mention of this in my forthcoming round-up of this year's Japan Cuts program for The Onion's New York Decider.

Friday, June 12, 2009

176) Ip Man (2008)

176) Ip Man (2008) Dir: Wilson Yip Not Yet Released Date Seen: June 12th, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

While it's tempting to say that the increased gimmickiness of the fight scenes in Ip Man, actor/martial arts choreographer Donnie Yen/director Wilson Yip's latest collaboration, are why the film is the most entertaining of their recent work together, that's only partially true. Sure, it's fun to watch Donnie Yen fight a big guy, then ten guys, then a bunch of guys with axes--a lot more fun than the technically impressive but kinda boring fights in SPL and Flash Point, too--but what really makes the film a perfect fit for Yen is the film's nationalistic message. 

Set just before World War 2, Ip Man is the story of the titular real-life martial arts master (Yen, of course) that apparently was not only just the best martial artist in a city full of sifus but was also much better than the haughty occupying Japanese soldiers that are of course not nearly as good at kung fu as Yen. By that token, the film has a comic book logic with an obvious plot and a ham-fisted and perhaps even inexplicable message--the fact that the film came out several months after the Beijing Olympics makes me wonder what kind of counter-programmed message it's sending about the competitive nature of the Chinese. 

At the same time, that kind of stuffy mandate seems to suit Yen's normally charisma-less style of fighting. The fights here feel like they're choreographed with a dynamism that his onscreen bouts otherwise sorely lack and his character. Also, his character is certainly subdued enough for an actor of such modest talents. Within the realm of contemporary martial arts epics, Ip Man is certainly good enough to keep you rooting for the good guy, especially during the last fight scene, where for a moment, it actually looks like Yen's met his match.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

175) Be a Man! Samurai School (2008

175) Be a Man! Samurai School (2008) Dir: Tak Sakaguchi Not Yet Released Date Seen: June 11th, 2009 Rating: 2.75/5

Not silly or imaginative enough for me to really feel much of anything about but it has a few good gags. Via my Twitter: "I liked Be a Man! Samurai School more when it was Cromartie High School. Fun at times but mostly just a so-so retread of CHS gags--Quirky schoolmates! Weird school rituals! Weirder school spirit!" 

174) Surveillance (2008)

174) Surveillance (2008) Dir: Jennifer Lynch Date Released: June 2009 Date Seen: June 10th, 2009 Rating: 1/5

Huh. French Stewart can act. See my review for The L Magazine.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

173) Warlords (2007)

173) Warlords (2007) Dir: Peter Chan and Wai Man Yip Date Released: June 10th, 2009 Rating: 4/5

Impressive in its focus on the mercenary attitude of its protagonists. See my "Get Your Reps" for The L Magazine.

Monday, June 8, 2009

172) The Naked Spur (1953)

172) The Naked Spur (1953) Dir: Anthony Mann Date Released: February 1953 Date Seen: June 7th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

There's an unusual spontaneity to Anthony Mann's normally meticulously composed images of bodies in The Naked Spur. You can see it in the way that you can't always get a clear shot of Jimmy Stewart when he's tussling with Robert Ryan or how the camera hesitates a little more than it should during group shots of Stewart's posse and his bounty right before he transitions to a close-up. You can also see it in the way that, just after Robert Ryan says what deceptively sounds like the film's tagline--"Plain arithmetic. Money splits better two ways instead of three"--the camera accidentally crash zooms into Janet Leigh before showing Millard Mitchell and Stewart clumped together on her right. 

That last bit of unrehearsed visual experimentation reflects the curiously jerky nature of the film's melodrama. Stewart plays Edward Kemp, a sweaty, beleaguered  bounty hunter on the trail of badman Ben Vandergroat (Ryan). Kemp and Vandergroat don't have a personal score to settle--Kemp is simply turning in Vandergroat because of the $5,000 price tag hanging over his head--but they do squabble over Lina (Leigh), Vandergroat's girl. While the feud between Kemp and his two new partners, Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker) and Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell), takes the foreground of the film's drama, the tug-of-war for Lina's hand quietly commands the film's focus, making what looks like a botched zoom seem fraught with veiled insinuations.

Lina bounces from Vandergroat to Kemp and back so roughly that it's no wonder that Mann's wandering camera had trouble picking her out from the rest of the boys.  She's the one rare exception to Mann's sustained dedication to fleshing out all of his characters, which is especially admirable in Roy's case considering how he could have just as easily been tossed aside like a necessary means to an inevitable end (hint: Vandergroat doesn't stay tied up forever). There's never a moment when she enjoys the limelight like the other guys, not even when she's justifying her love to a snarling but out-of-breath Kemp at film's end.* She's a rough edge that screenwriters Sam Rolfe and Harold Jack Bloom weren't quite able to smooth out but considering how many great one-liners and individually memorable scenes they supply the film with, it's no wonder why it's one of the cornerstones of Mann's career. 

*Stewart's brutal performance in this one surprised me. Just goes to show ya how versatile the guy was. Why, Mr. Smith, what a big gun you have!

171) The Girlfriend Experience (2009)

171) The Girlfriend Experience (2009) Dir: Steven Soderbergh Date Released: May 2009 Date Seen: June 8th, 2009 Rating: 4/5

As a drama about the deceptively superficial nature of material goods in contemporary society, Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience is an ostentatious success. By following Chelsea (porn star Sasha Grey), an upwardly mobile call girl, screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman ask us to sympathize with the ultimate recession-friendly underdog. As a member of the world’s oldest profession, Chelsea has to constantly reinvent herself and hence struggle to remain competitive in a male-dominated market controlled by clients that pay to emotionally and physically take as much as they can from her. Because she makes a living by putting on a show for them, she rarely lets her guard down to discuss how she “really” feels.

Therein lies the challenge that Soderbergh and company give themselves: stylistically reproducing the frenetic lifestyle of someone that’s constantly being looked at. Her story is jumbled up chronologically, abruptly transitioning from various “appointments” she has with high-powered clients to scenes with her boyfriend Chris (Chris Santos in his debut role). Similarly, to visually affect Chelsea’s harried emotional state, Soderbergh films events in High-Definition DV with a markedly detached aesthetic, focusing more on flashy, high-end building fixtures and decors first and then his equally pretty human subjects.

This impressionistic approach leaves the viewer to in a haze of mood lighting, nanny cam-like photography and structurally devious episodes. For the sake of immersing us into Chelsea’s emotional woes, we are assaulted with a narrative puzzle box that rearranges otherwise garish, pseudo-reality show fodder into an “information age” critique.

Make no mistake, while Chelsea traipses about in designer clothing and lives in a spacious Manhattan loft, the disjointed manner by which her story is told stems from Soderbergh’s ambitious stab at commenting on our media-saturated times. Because there’s so much information to process at once in any given scene of Chelsea’s life, everything is broken down into various interspersed segments. We aren’t deluged by diffuse chunks of information but rather a lot of little slivers. This gives us the illusory impression that we’re being bogged down with the task of determining which scenes go where in order to form a coherent story.

The Girlfriend Experience can subsequently be seen as a movie that aptly reflects contemporary exhaustion with a multimedia deluge of sound bite-sized data. “If I hear one more word about this debate,” Scott whines about the recent presidential debates, “I’m going to throw up. If I hear the word ‘Maverick,’ one more time, I’m going to throw up.” Like cobbling together a holistic view of anything political, or more specifically, anything involving our ailing economy, manufacturing a complex and coherent picture of a working girl’s life from so many diffuse moments is a nigh impossible task. Chelsea subsequently serves as a cipher for both her clients’ needs and Soderbergh’s social commentary.

That use of strong-arm aesthetics, which speaks more loudly as social commentary than it does as a narrative, strips Chelsea of her appeal as a character and transforms her into a bigger-than-life sandwich board. Her lilting pout and quiet one-note intensity sour and feel like the necessary means to an end, the qualities that make her a modern victim. Despite her independent and dare I say enterprising lifestyle, she’s never going to be able to get ahead in a world where even she, a self-professed expert at reading other people’s needs, can be taken in by a mysterious new client and potential love interest, a sleazy internet blogger (NY film critic Glenn Kenny) promising a great write-up in exchange for sex and even Chris, an aggressive type-A personality adept at making his interests the priority in any given conversation. For The Girlfriend Experience to work, Chelsea has to be an expectant loser.

The problem with that kind of mentality is that it’s only rewarding to the viewer that’s willing to accept Soderbergh and the gang’s pat use of Chelsea as a statement on the perils of making yourself your own product. I enjoyed Chelsea’s drama as an experimental made-for-tv reality show pilot about The Real Prostitutes of SoHo and appreciated it retrospectively as the Zeitgeist According to Soderbergh.


Sunday, June 7, 2009

170) Inserts (1974)

170) Inserts (1974) Dir: John Byrum Date Released: February 1976 Date Seen: June 7th, 2009 Rating: 4/5

Inserts, writer/director John Byrum's pitch-black comedy and minor historical flop, is perhaps a little too mischievous and cunning for its own good. Its inevitable failure is naively credited with being the straw that broke the camel's back for major Hollywood studios interested in making X-rated pictures, as if there needed to be just one more and this was it. Who would've thought that that would happen, what with studio executives putting their expectations on a work this blisteringly bitter.

The most telling sign of why Byrum's ode to pantomime failed is that he does a little too much of a good job keeping us guessing whether what we're looking at is supposed to be funny or Dramatic. If you took the dramatic template of Sunset Boulevard and overlayed it with the cynicism of In a Lonely Place and liberally added the withering grotesque physical comedy of All That Jazz, you'd have something like Inserts.

 The Boy Wonder (Richard Dreyfuss), a former silent filmmaking wunderkind, is not just washed-up, he's drowning himself in bottle after bottle of cognac that looks disturbingly like Heinz Ketchup. To get his, pardon the pun, spirits back up (did I mention that he's impotent?), he decides to make silent pornos starring Harlene (Veronica Cartwright), a heroin addict and the woman he may or may not love and Rex the Wonder Dog (Stephen Davies), a dense schnook with a big dick and stars in his eyes. 

This pathetic predicament is hardly one that Byrum expects us to take seriously. The comedy of The Boy Wonder's desperation stems from the cruelly ironic realization that, while he's convinced that he knows how low he's sunk, he has no clue. He sneers at Rex as if he were just a mindless meat puppet that doesn't know the first thing about how to get ahead as an artist or an actor, but then he gets a mad look in his eyes when he walks him and Harlene through a scene of hysterically wild and frenetic humping. 

During The Boy Wonder's fits of artistic clarity, the soft buzzing of jackhammers emanating from outside of his house is momentarily interrupted by a mad whirlwind of bongo drums. He dismounts his camera from its tripod, hoping to accurately capture the shrieking display of gyrating limbs in front of him. The fact that he thinks he could keep shooting the movie with Harlene even after she abruptly O.D.s on smack is a patent sign that this man, our fallen hero no less, is not a strictly tragic protagonist.

Only the deceptive naivete of young Cathy Cake (Jessica Harper), his latest piece of "meat," can drag The Boy Wonder out of his mad stupor. She walks in with a goo-goo doll expression and a pout of "I want to see it all, I want to do it all" sticking to her sullen lips. She protests that she's not just a "silly little girl" and proves it with the alacrity she doffs her clothes and puts up with The Boy Wonder's desperately crude demands--"I wanna do a beaver shot," he bellows trying to mask his fear of her unperturbed calm and failing miserably.

Then again, even The Boy Wonder's relationship with Cathy isn't strictly sincere: as he sneers, "Nothing pure, old sport, is ever easy." Inserts knowingly confronts us with its artifice, beginning with a pan shot of the bed, flanked by towering stage lights, where Harlene and Rex go at it. The bed's just the most important stage in the film but hardly the only one. 

The Boy Wonder's redemption through the arms of Cathy, the quick study that knows how to make his tent rise, looks like a Hollywood ending wrapped up in an unconventional package--fallen boy meets girl, fucks girl, regains his mojo and gains a partner in crime in the process. Byrum only teases us with that kind of ending, having The Boy Wonder dismiss the plaintive knocks of a young Clark Gable, who in this film is an eager fan of his work and hence just the rising star he needs to hitch onto to get back on top. But he's not. Instead, he just Gable knock and knock. With a toss of his head, The Boy Wonder moans angrily, "Oh, you have got to be kidding me," a line finally worthy of Dreyfuss' accomplished eye-rolling.

Byrum's love of artifice, which oddly enough results in a deliriously stagey performance from Bob Hoskins as Big Mac, The Boy Wonder's seedy manager, but pitch-perfect work from his co-stars, is too much and that's his point. The Boy Wonder's frustration with the body language in film and sex in real-life, if the too can be separated, is just about the only thing that he takes seriously, making his softly lit, close-up-friendly sexual breakthrough with Cathy a little too easy an answer for a film that sneers at the concept of sincerity. Taken alone, the attitude Byrum infuses Dreyfuss and Harlene's scathing dialogue during the the film's suckerpunch of an opener suggests an artistic temperament that, like The Boy Wonder, has seen it all and refuses to try to put real feelings on the line. 

Byrum accordingly sacrifices nothing and remarkably succeeds all the more because of it. The fact that The Boy Wonder can so quickly shrug off his post-coital victory is what makes his painfully drawn-out seduction so winning. There's no hope to be had in that ending for him or us, who are by that point left wondering why Byrum's unrelenting acrimony is warranted. This may be one of the blackest comedy of them all.

169) Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975)

169) Strip Nude for Your Killer (1975) Dir: Andrea Bianchi Date Released (DVD): October 2005 Date Seen: June 7th, 2009 Rating: 3.25/5

Andrea Bianchi's Strip Nude for Your Killer is a cut above the gialli I've seen because of the pretense of aesthetic intelligence it supplies to its gratuitous nudity, violence, camp, etc. Like Dario Argento before him, Bianchi is a self-conscious "artist" that swipes liberally from Hitchcock but unlike Argento, he does so with a sly sense of humor--as a reversal of the shower scene in Psycho, the leather-clad killer in one scene waits on the inside of the bathtub. He's also competent enough to evocatively make use of the camera so that it seems like it could be a stand-in for the killer without actually turning it into a cheesy first-person POV (though it was mannered, I was under the mistaken impression that the killer was the camera in the scene where Edwige Frenech is attacked and would leap on top of her at any moment). 

Thematically, Bianchi, who also wrote the story Massimo Fellisati's screenplay is based on, even provides several strong hints that the models are merely performing so as to get ahead in the exploitative field of modeling. The killer is avenging the accidental death of a model who died during an abortion by slaying the founders of the Albatross Modeling Agency, who are all grotesque, over-sexed monsters (the worst is Maurizio, a fat slob that clutches a blow-up doll like a security blanket after he absconds from the agency with and is unable to, ahem, perform). 

This is hardly revolutionary in a picture where one model proudly shows off that Bianchi was indeed able to get away with a goodly amount of full-frontal female nudity, but as I said, in a giallo, the most misogynistic of horror subgenres, that's kind of an intriguing contradiction. I mean, we are talking about a movie where the killer's motives are haphazardly explained during a scene where the protagonist, who in this case stands in for the director (Carlo Bianchi is his name, natch), teases his model/photographer girlfriend (Frenech) with the possibility that he might do her in the butt. Hardly forward-thinking, I know, but then again, I doubt anyone watching a film called Strip Nude for Your Killer is watching it as their first giallo and hence expects more than just a modicum of brains and a good serving of atmosphere to go with their blood, boobs and kitsch. In that sense, Bianchi delivers.

168) All Around Us (2008)

168) All Around Us (2008) Dir: Ryosuke Hashiguchi Not Yet Released Date Seen: June 6th, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

 All Around Us, writer/director Ryosuke Hashiguchi's return to making movies after a seven year hiatus, is for the most part an expertly observed drama about a young married couple. Based on a novel of his, Hashiguchi deftly alternates between episodes in the lives of Shoko (Tae Kamura), a literary PR agent whose pregnancy is forcing her to take a series of serious emotional blows and Kanao (Lily Franky), a happy-go-lucky sketch artist who takes a high-paying job drawing courtroom portraits for newspapers to support his family. From that kind of set-up, All Around Us could have been a much more emotionally rich version of Judd Apatow's Knocked Up--indeed, the hilariously deadpan scene where they're determining to have sex could very well be a deleted scene from that film--but as it progresses, it becomes more like a cross between The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Edward Yang's Yi Yi

Sadly, that delicacy isn't sustained throughout the film's 140 minute runtime. By the last half hour, the characters look to have achieved a miraculous emotional breakthrough, granting them a lasting sense of closure. This means that their lives are now spent living every moment to their fullest, a cliched false sentiment that spoils all the moments of fragile tenderness that Hashiguchi's gradual, moment-by-moment approach to dramatizing their lives up 'til that point earned. 

All Around Us instead ends with a series of resolution, which is especially grating considering that Kanao and Shoko understand that being happy is mostly a matter of faith. "Living's a skill," an understanding nun tells Kanao and as obnoxious as that sounds, beneath its deceptively simple message is a lot of truth. Giving Kanao and Shoko this kind of happy ending feels like a cheat. An otherwise terrific film marginally but memorably brought down by a soppy finish.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

167) Rough Cut (2008)

167) Rough Cut (2008) Dir: Hun Jang Not Yet Released Date Seen: June 6th, 2009 Rating: 2.25/5

I think I like my buddy films to be a more funny or just more loose than Rough Cut is. Very uptight and not particularly memorable, mostly because both male protags humorlessly make each other better at what they do--acting and gangstering respectively--more through their distant growling at each other rather than through their gritted teeth and clenched fists. I was almost able to go along with writer/director Hun Jang's debut feature but only when it had both feet firmly planted in the slick world of acting and filmmaking egos. I lose interest after The Odd Couple's first "real" fight scene, when the plot's alternating between the mob world and the movie world becomes a necessity to the film's mirthless bit of fantasy fluff.

166) Breathless (2009)

166) Breathless (2009) Dir: Yang Ik-Joon Not Yet Released Date Seen: June 6th, 2009 Rating: 2.75/5

Writer/director Yang Ik-Joon's Breathless isn't necessarily a bad film, just one with questionable emotional worth. His character study of Sang-hoon (played by Yang himself), an abusive debt collector that defines the South Korean male patriarchial tyrant stereotype--he beats his women, he's a deadbeat dad, he curses constantly, he drinks too much and he's also a product of a broken home--is honest in its rawness but infused with a dishonest kind of wishful thinking. 

Over the course of the film, Sang-hoon changes for the better and while he does it on his own terms, the changes that he undergoes after he takes a surly teen under his wing feel like cheap in their  quick melodramatic fixes to serious character flaws. Yang's performance and his interactions with his sister and her kid alone humanize him sufficiently, making this added queasily romantic subplot also a fruitless redundancy. As the relationship gradually becomes the film's central focus, Breathless loses its edge as a prickly entry in what NYAFF programmer Daniel Craft sagaciously calls the Korean subgenre of "My Bastard Dad" melodramas.

Note: Yang's performance is powerful but like Tom Hardy's performance in Bronson, which also relies on broad physicality, I hesitate to praise him in a role that requires him to go over the top and never come down.