Sunday, November 29, 2009

420) Tokyo! (2008)

420) Tokyo! (2008) Dir: Joon-Ho Bong, Leos Carax and Michel Gondry Date Released: March 2009 Date Seen: November 29, 2009 Rating: 2.5/5

Though he's only onscreen for a few seconds, it's important to note YoshiYoshi Arakawa's cameo in Tokyo!, a triptych of vignettes about and/or set in the eponymous city by three foreigners. A sadly underused character actor and comedian, Arakawa gives the audience an insanely brief preview of his schtick during "Shaking Tokyo," Joon-ho Bong's contribution. Like a slacker version of Chicken Little, Arakawa comically flails his arms about and bemoans the end of the world while nobody but the camera notices him. Arakawa's walk-on performance is the highlight of Tokyo!, a brief but memorable burst of energy that the film otherwise sorely lacks. Somehow, consciously setting a story in an alien culture has robbed all three filmmakers of their innovative zeal.

Michel Gondry's "Interior Design" comes out on top because even without a particularly memorable protagonist, his short is the one that seems least like a deer caught in the global community's headlights. Holistically however Tokyo! feels uninspired and rudderless, which is saying something considering how even Paris, Je T'Aime (2006) was able to get by on its scanty charms (My theory: having so many name-checked auteurs in one place meant that any given director had to make their caricatures of the city comparatively shorter and hence sweeter). If only Tokyo!'s segments had more than a sliver of Arakawa's madcap charm.

As both Gondry and Bong's shorts are more unmemorable than they are offensive, Leos Carax's "Merde" automatically becomes the highlight of the film, which is unfortunate considering how it's the most strained of the lot. Carax tries to address how the Japanese are both seen as and actively allow themselves to be identified as a nation ruled by fetishes and subcultures, with a bitter sense of humor, one should note. The only thing "Merde" proves however is that it's impossible not to overthink things when you're addressing the very nature of cross-cultural exchange. "Merde" unleashes a deformed, sewer-dwelling troll (Denis Lavant) on the streets of Tokyo, leaving him to terrorize the gentry in his own small way. He makes a big splash not just because he eventually murders and maims couple of people but because he's a xenophobic foreign monster and hence an "other" amongst "others" ("You should know, in Japan, we don't really like racist foreigners" says the prosecutor once he's captured and tried for his crimes).

Lavant's troglodite is not however meant to be seen as just a figment of Carax's lopsidedly conservative representation of Japan. He's also a self-fashioned miscreant whose Godzilla-like identity is a response to the natives' irrational fear of outsiders ("My mother was a saint! And you raped her! And I am your son!" he bellows defensively in one of his more lucid moments). He's giving back the venom the Japanese unwittingly suppressed in the first place, making responsibility a relative concept.

Carax spends so much time expounding and unpacking this simplistic philosophy that he ignores the fact that it doesn't not making much sense. He ignores a critical step in the cycle of cultural representation: the gate-keeping middle men that perpetuate the image of Japan as uniquely quirky and strange. In that sense, he representatively ignores what makes Japan's overlapping jumble of subcultures so fascinating: they're more self-compartmentalized and hence more self-aware than most other country's constituent peoples. If the finished product is any indication, why that is remains a mystery that Tokyo!'s multiculti architects can't begin to fathom.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

419) Trash Humpers (2009)

419) Trash Humpers (2009) Dir: Harmony Korine Not Yet Released Date Seen: November 28, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

Redundant as it is, Trash Humpers, idiot savant Harmony Korine's confrontational sensation dares its viewer to wonder, "Well, what's the point?" It's a celebration of cultural junking and of the destruction of utility so technically, that's the wrong question. Follow Korine's naive logic, if you will: because art and the aesthetically beautiful has no use value, it is necessarily grotesque (it's pretty--pretty ugly, that is, ehhhhhhahaha). This makes Trash Humpers, 78 minutes of digital video recordings presented as a VHS found item of young people in old people masks humping trashes and celebrating obsolescence and pointlessness, a defense of itself. Technology is destroyed, trash cans are molested, soap is poured on pancakes and even the utilitarian mantra of "Make it, make it, don't fake it" is chanted and screwed up so many different times and in so many different ways that it all loses any immediate meaning ("Suck it, suck it, don't fuck it" is my favorite variation). There's no payoff because there shouldn't be, because art is technically garbage and refuse is its own reward. As an ardent admirer of Korine's work, I appreciate that kind of crude zeal, even if I feel Trash Humpers is often dull. It's a necessary provocation but he's done it better before.

418) Three Monkeys (2008)

418) Three Monkeys (2008) Dir: Nuri Bilge Ceylan Date Released May 2009 Date Seen: November 27, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

In Three Monkeys, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's tendency to pull back with his omniscient camera is paradoxically his way of not only humanizing but also of mystifying his characters. Their emotions are conveyed almost entirely through body language, a spare approach that reaps some unforgettable moments of emotional pathos (the film's ensemble cast also can't be undersold; really one of the best in a contemporary film I've seen this year).

In that way, Ceylan pre-emptively prevents Three Monkeys from feeling too broad in its scope, as its plot has all the makings of an operatic melodrama--a rich man's driver goes to prison for his employer in exchange for a big payoff only to suspect his boss is sleeping with his wife while his son is tormented by...something. Thanks to Ceylan's guarded use of close-ups, we only get so close to the characters and when we, the camera, are allowed to be near them, it's often devastating.

Ceylan's instinct can however also be problematic because it leads to scenes where he pulls us back because of his emotional allegiance with his wracked characters. An emotional crux of the film, filmed from a distance on a heath by the sea, like a Mediterannean version of Wuthering Heights, is filmed from afar, as is the film's central collision and its frigid last shot. Aesthetically, they work beautifully but emotionally, they don't pay off for anyone but Ceylan, as if delving into the mysteries of his characters was only so necessary. One of the family's ghosts obliquely surfaces twice but is never explained, making one wonder why that intimation of prior trauma is necessary in the first place. Even then, in the film's only vestigial subplot, it feels like we're being coaxed so far only to be told we need to respect the characters' personal space. I can't recall a time when a filmmaker has so coquettishly encouraged viewers to be voyeurs only to push them away when it matters most.

Friday, November 27, 2009

417) Adventureland (2009)

417) Adventureland (2009) Dir: Greg Mottola Date Released: April 2009 Date Seen: November 26, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

In the space of just two films, director Greg Mottola has quickly established himself as a soppy, self-indulgent but endearing wee raconteur. Both Superbad and his follow-up Adventureland proudly indulge in the the boy's club atmosphere of the Apatow films and both tend to off-handedly smother the nugget of hard-won sympathy they earn in cheesy music video montages. And yet, in spite of those nagging problems, the emotional hard core of Mottola's films remains pure, especially in Adventureland, a film that almost manages to transform the puppy love of an angsty summer fling into anguished tragedy (that's a big almost though, as the film's final scene in New York is a truly dismal and unconvincing happy ending). The three participants in the film's main love triangle all hit their marks wonderfully: Jesse Eisenberg hems-and-haws like a hormone-chafed C-3P0 around Kristen Stewart, who pouts and mumbles very erotically while Ryan Reynolds glowers his way back into this fan's good graces (Reynolds' last good role was probably in ABC sitcom Two Guys, A Girl and a Pizza Place but then again, I haven't seen Waiting). Mottola gives them good material to work with and when he can get his mind off of compiling a soundtrack of his post-adolescence, the film is pretty affecting.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

416) Return to Sleepaway Camp (2008)

416) Return to Sleepaway Camp (2008) Dir: Robert Hiltzik Date Released: November 2008 Date Seen: November 25, 2009 Rating: 2/5

Robert Hiltzik's Return to Sleepaway Camp is undoubtedly the most obnoxious franchise reboot of all, which is both a minor blessing and a major curse. Starting right after his original Sleepaway Camp ended, Hiltzik uses Return to dismiss the three sequels that followed his only film until Return because they just didn't get the joke. Return is his way of setting the record straight, a movie so contemptuously mean in its agenda that its admirable in principle even if it feels like a very long and very dull watch. It's his way of reprimanding fans that don't see the original Sleepaway Camp as an anti-slasher but rather as just another unintentionally campy entry into that now nostalgically rehabilitated sub-genre. He accomplishes this in Return by making all the characters, even the young pariah that everybody (and I mean everybody) picks on, shrill and unsympathetic. They spend much of the film screeching the most uninspired epithets at each other ("Your ass stinks!") while the killer defies the viewer to not identify him.

It's all one big joke at the fans' expense, making each death a bland act of puritanical retribution that one would expect from a typical slasher instead of the weird, quasi-pagan murders that Angela commits in the original Sleepaway Camp. Any signs of nostalgia for that film is used cursorily as bait, as in the way that Return's first death echoes Sleepaway Camp's deep-fat frier "kill scene," as the fans might call it. The end, where Angela breaks the fourth wall and suddenly slackens her features from her iconic O face, is likewise a great big slap in the face, another way to say, "This was never serious and if you remember it otherwise, you're lying to yourself." Too bad we don't get to enjoy the joke most of the time. The film's entirely mirthless, save for one scene where two campers take turns peering into a hole in the floor with a sharpened broom stick at the other end of it. Now that's funny.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

415) Book of Blood (2008)

415) Book of Blood (2008) Dir: John Harrison Date Released (DTV): September 2009 Date Seen: November 24, 2009 Rating: 2.5/5

If only John Harrison had had better material to work with than Clive Barker's characteristically flaccid short story "The Book of Blood." Like most of Barker's stories, it's all build-up, no release, nothing but promises of a new kind of Lovecraftian horror and no delivery. But Book of Blood could've been different: unlike the film adaptations that Barker made of his own work, it's directed by somebody good at conjuring atmosphere and an on-again, off-again knack for climaxes (If you haven't read any of Barker's stories, you'll probably think I'm laying it on thick with the sex puns; if you have read his stories, you'll think I'm going too easy on him). Harrison immediately goes at the viewer's throat in the film's memorable first scene, diving headlong into the completely de-eroticized, almost putrefied images of food that all of Barker's stories flirt with. In fact, that whole scene at the diner, which is arguably just the second of the film's three prologues, is a great example of Harrison's ability to be terrifying without the boring, more improbable aspects of Barker's story's pretentious fixation with corporeal torments. It's a fitting showcase of gruesome images without Barker's usual tired provocation. Hope Harrison's next is more like that and less like the more crucial parts of the film.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

414) The Limits of Control (2009)

414) The Limits of Control (2009) Dir: Jim Jarmusch Date Released: May 2009 Date Seen: November 24, 2009 Rating: 4/5

The beauty of The Limits of Control lies in its infuriating cryptic simplicity. The film is all about Lone Man's (Isaach De Bankole) journey to accepting his own inner life and sense of personal freedom. In that sense, though I can object to the film's individual images (Bill Murray's Cheney-esque "American," Bankole's exotic "other"-worldly appearance as the American that doesn't identify as being, well, American). But as long as I agree with the journey as process as conclusion, then in principle, I've already allowed myself to be seduced by the film. It's a good thing that the process in question is in fact engaging as a film as well as a statement.

I have to agree with my supportive and every-diligent colleague Joseph Jon Lanthier when he said that The Limits of Control is in a sense all about spaghetti westerns. Spare, though oddly obtrusive, electric guitar-heavy music thrums while Lone Man is advised by a number of oneiric spirit guides in cowboy hats. The Limits of Control is set almost entirely in Spain, where the majority of spaghetti westerns were shot. Like that subgenre, it's concerned with expanding its hero's identity by juxtaposing generic symbols with unexpected new ones, in this case, two cups of espresso and a guy-tar. Just as the spaghetti western evolved the classical Hollywood western's preoccupation with manifest destiny beyond the terrain of physical expansion, so to is The Limits of Control more concerned with a spiritual and philosophical broadening of horizons. Its purposive, though seemingly free form, narrative encourages a move from moral certitude toward amorality, begging us to see Lone Man's ritualized search for answers as one determined not by symbols without apparent explanation but by symbols with no set limits. Somewhere, Alejandro Jodorowsky is smiling.

Which brings me to the film's surreal sense of humor. Like the fiction of Haruki Murakami, Jarmusch's film revolves around the calculated complacent acceptance of the sublimely strange as a worldview. Pop art and weird shamans borne from a universal subconscious go hand-in-hand, just as the protagonists of Murakami's stories are advised by everybody from a Sheepman to Col. Sanders, who in Murakami's Kafka on the Shore is a wise old pimp. Scenes like the Lone Man's trysts with Nude (Paz de la Huerta) are entirely within the realm of Jarmuschian sexual norms ("Do you like Schubert?") but their ethereal qualities are this time tied to the film's inescapable, though hardly relentless, set trajectory. This means that we're encouraged to take our time because the film, like any journey of self-discovery, cannot be rushed. But we're also reminded, as in a Murakami story, that eventually, we and Lone Man will get there.

Monday, November 23, 2009

413) Perestroika (2009)

413) Perestroika (2009) Dir: Slava Tsukerman Date Released: March 2009 Date Seen: November 23, 2009 Rating: 4/5

Everything worth admiring about Slava Tsukerman's rigorously intellectual style of filmmaking is on display in Perestroika. Perestroika is Tsukerman's semi-autobiographical story about Sasha (Sam Robards), an alienated, middle-aged Russian astrophysicist who flees Russia only to return 17 years later during "perestroika," or the period of restructuring. Tsukerman, ever an aggressive and jubilant rhetorician, infuses Greenberg's cerebral and emotional discombobulation into the film's aesthetic. The divide between the polar opposites of Greenberg's identity--Russia and America, past and present--is muddled by Tsukerman's infrequent use of flagrantly obvious green-screen backdrops and post-dubbed voices. Relative as it is, Greenberg's sense of time is out of joint, making his journey back to Russia not a quest to see a familiar face or a choice landmark but rather to see if anything has really changed.

Though he ultimately, and dubiously I might add, finds that something in the youthful unpredictability of the daughter of one of his old flames, the amorality of that pairing is unimportant to Tsukerman. Ever a dabbler, he's more interested in confronting the viewer with a cacophonous representation of the inescapable and inherently confrontational nature of change. In other words: he's as garishly confrontational here as he was in his seminal work of counter-culture speculative fiction Liquid Sky (1982) and it suits the story very well. Heavy-handed leitmotifs do not ease our transition into the film's plot but rather demand that we share in Greenberg's discomfort. In fact, we're never allowed to settle down for very long before some other aspect of Greenberg's environment confronts us with the audaciously unsettling fact that nothing's quite right and there's no permanent solution to anyone's problems in sight. In that way, Tsukerman's created one of the more insistent films of the year without attempting to coddle the audience once. Perestroika's also confirms that he hasn't allowed his garish sense of humor to become diluted over the years, making another good case for why he's probably one of the only filmmakers capable of making a good film adaptation of a Pynchon novel.

412) Triangle (2009)

412) Triangle (2009) Dir: Christopher Smith Date Released (DTV): February 2010 Date Seen: November 23, 2009 Rating: 1.75/5

Everything that made Severance, writer/director Christopher Smith's rousing horror comedy, so effective is absent in Smith's follow-up, Triangle. Triangle can be best dismissed/described as Timecrimes on a boat: a group of young folks go on a weekend get-away, get swept up in an inexplicable squall, board a mystery ship and get hunted down by a masked killer who turns out to be one of them stuck in a time loop. The repeating cycle of events that leads said protagonist back to the scene of the crime, at the same moments in time to boot, is interminable and almost completely lifeless. Save for a twist or two, the film's trajectory is completely devoid of humor or any kind of enlivening details. Smith's characteristic style of humdrum dialogue, which positions his characters as real people in generic peril, is sorely wanting here as its monotony is only broken up by the tedium of the film's bland plot twists. It's a long, pointless march to a foregone conclusion that's blindingly obvious from the get-go. If you don't suspect something's up by the end of the prologue, you really need to watch more movies; might I suggest the vastly superior Timecrimes? I think I might've mentioned that one before...

407) Dolemite (1975) and 411) Black Dynamite (2009)

407) Dolemite (1975) Dir: D'Urville Martin Date Released: July 1975 Date Seen: November 21, 2009 Rating: 0.25/5

411) Black Dynamite (2009) Dir: Scott Sanders Date Released: October 2009 Date Seen: November 22, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

Of the more notorious entries in the established canon of blaxtaploitation films, Dolemite is certainly one of the most memorably stilted. Starring and featuring a story and set decorations provided by stand-up comic Rudy Ray Moore, Dolemite is top-to-bottom inept and soaked through with stale cheese. The jokes in the film preen with empty-headed pride in the titular hero's blackness and Moore is anti-charisma personified (Check out that hat! Pimptacular!). That's what makes Black Dynamite, a spoof of Dolemite's overbearing, cooler-than-thou "Man on the Street" type ghetto hero, such a minor victory. Taking down a film directed and starring a guy named D'Urville Martin doesn't exactly require much grey matter. All you have to do to achieve moderate success is exploit the genre's logical underpinnings and magnify their inanities a bit. Doing that without more than a cursory consideration of the genre's place in history is just too easy, making the film's jokes way too proud of their own airheadedness. Black Dynamite's biggest success however has to be star and co-writer Michael Jai White's expertly timed delivery. His performance is a perfect send-up of Moore's dim-bulb libido-fueled muscle man, I mean, brutha. Wonder what he'll do next.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

410) Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

410) Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) Dir: Wes Anderson Date Released: November 2009 Date Seen: November 22, 2009 Rating: 4.25/5

Immaculately executed. My theory is that, darting between this and The Darjeeling Limited, Wes Anderson put more attention and care into this than that tired variation on his familiar theme (perhaps because the film's stop-motion animation formally requires more focus and dedication)? The film's dynamic pacing and inimitably detailed sense of humor slackens off in the film's relatively sluggish penultimate 15 minutes but the rest is very charming.

409) Troll 2 (1990)

409) Troll 2 (1990) Dir: Claudio Fragasso Date Released (DTV): July 1992 Date Seen: November 22, 2009 Rating: 0.25/5

Bad troll costumes, terrible acting, gaping plot holes, more terrible acting, inexplicable cuts, inexplicable dead grandfather, inexplicable Videodrome reference, inexplicable Dr. Lizardo impersonator? OK! I can see this premise working though given a better execution of it. Now we wait for some inspired crazies to come along and try to remake it, ala that "serious" new version of Plan 9 from Outer Space (whatever happened to that)?

408) The Last Action Hero (1993)

408) The Last Action Hero (1993) Dir: John McTiernan Date Released: June 1993 Date Seen: November 21, 2009 Rating: 3.25/5

Though Lethal Weapon creator Shane Black's rewrite of Zak Penn and Adam Leff's script for The Last Action Hero was in turn later rewritten un-officially, Black's finger-prints are all over the blustery, too-cool-for-school action spoof. The Last Action Hero is, in patches, a fairly entertaining, though patently cynical, parody of the amped-up excesses of Hollywood action films in the late '80s and throughout the '90s. Trouble is, it's also often off-puttingly smug and overweeningly cocksure and only modestly funny, a hallmark of Black's overheated comedy of cliches. He spends so much time winking at the viewer in his jokes that he effectively sucks all the fun out of his jokes, which are all decent, though mostly unmemorable. Still, any excuse to watch a semi-self-aware Arnold Schwarzenegger confront his own immateriality is a good one. Hell, any excuse to watch Arnold just do his thing, really. The man really is the most charismatic member of the "None Of Us Do Our Own Stunts" Club that ruled Hollywood actioners for so long.

RV!: Batman and Robin (1997)

RV!: Batman and Robin (1997) Dir: Joel Schumacher Date Released: June 1997 Date Seen: November 22, 2009 Rating: 1/5

Sometimes, I'm glad I can overcome my boyhood crushes. This is one of them (I think I kinda liked this one first time I saw it in theaters, though I initially preferred Batman Forever). Discovery of them all re: this film: Joel Shumacher is gay. Ah. This explains his love/rape of camp. See my tweets on the subject during Polish cine-expert Michal Oleszczyk and I's Live-tweet duel (look for #brschu as the hashtag).

Saturday, November 21, 2009

406) The Landlord (1970)

406) The Landlord (1970) Dir: Hal Ashby Date Released: May 1970 Date Seen: November 20, 2009 Rating: 3/5

Now having seen The Landlord, Hal Ashby's elusive directorial debut (not on R1 DVD, folks), I have to begrudgingly admit that I understand why many consider it to be a minor film in Ashby's oeuvre. Adapted from a novel by Kristin Hunter, The Landlord features little insight into the racial conundrum white liberal Americans present themselves with when they try to engage or unwittingly exploit a disenfrachised and entrenched African-American community. Its titular protagonist, played by Beau Bridges, at first coasts through life thinking that everybody, white and black, are ants in the long run, callously refusing to engage with his own racial prejudices. By the end however, having become romantically involved with a mulatto and a married black woman, he learns that racial integration is heady, sticky stuff. Zeitgeist, I say, zeitgeist!

Bridges' life-changing lesson is only bolstered by the impenetrable collective character of the other black folk he meets during his short time in the hood. Ashby's film refuses both Bridges' character and us the comfort of knowing the tenement residents' respective motives for selectively aiding and stymieing his vain attempts to convert their building into a tacky dance hall with a huge chandelier hanging from its skylight. Transparency is not an option, making much of the film's knowingly sardonic caricatures especially mystifying. It's all a big inside joke and the viewer, like Bridges, is on the outs.

But there is something sporadically seductive about Ashby's purposive style of direction. Bridges' tentative romance with the mulatto (she's black in the winter and white in the summer) is one of the only times when the audience can feel confident thinking they know what's going on. Filmed mostly from a distance, Ashby creates a distinctive portraits of two isolated lovers trying to figure out who they are in each other's eyes. In that central sub-plot, Ashby earns our sympathies, even if his tendency to prove his neophyte aesthetic wiles sometimes steers him wrong (the film's climactic though maddeningly ethereal love scene is just flat-out unbelievable). The rest of the time however, he's just not trying very hard to accomplish anything except look good while smirking.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

404) Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988) and 405) Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (1989)

404) Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988) Dir: Michael A. Simpson Date Released (DTV): October 1988 Date Seen: November 19, 2009 Rating: 1.5/5

405) Sleepaway Camp III: Teenage Wasteland (1989) Dir: Michael A. Simpson Date Released (DTV): July 1989 Date Seen: November 19, 2009 Rating: 1/5

Michael A. Simpson's two Direct-to-Video sequels to Robert Hiltzik's memorable and surprisingly thoughtful slasher parody Sleepaway Camp are both as rancid as they come. Lil Pamela Springsteen, Bruce's sister, stars as a surgically enhanced Angela (incidentally, this was right around the time when Pamela's career hit a brick wall hard; wonder why). She pouts, she reminisces about happy times at camp that never really happened and she kills everybody who doesn't behave well. No matter how funny some of the death scenes in the film may be (I'm partial to the outhouse death, myself), both Sleepaway Camp II and III are complete failures, terrible straight-up slashers made on the cheap with no skill and very little sense of humor. The fact that the black kid with the ghetto-blaster and the switchblade in III is the most relatable character in both films says a lot about Simpson's lack of any commendable artistic merits. To quote said kid: "What?"

403) The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009)

403) The Twilight Saga: New Moon (2009) Dir: Chris Weitz Date Released: November 2009 Date Seen: November 18, 2009 Rating: 0.5/5

This is currently duking it out with My Life in Ruins for my least favorite movie of 09. Drama! See my mammoth review for Slant Magazine.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

402) Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)

402) Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009) Dir: Phil Lord and Chris Miller Date Released: September 2009 Date Seen: November 17, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

Sometimes, it's okay for a kid's movie to emphasize anarchic humor over strident life lessons. Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the screenwriter/director duo that made Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, probably would not declare this, given how needy some of the film's quirky dialogue and over-emphasized running gags are. But their film is strong enough to exhibit that admirable conciliatory attribute. Meatballs is hyper-active without being irritating, funny throughout instead of sporadically, though mostly modestly and heart-felt without being overbearing. It looks good, it's got energy to spare and has a cat singing Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." What more do you people need, really?

401) Accident (2009)

401) Accident (2009) Dir: Pou-Soi Cheang Not Yet Released Date Seen: November 17, 2009 Rating: 3.5/5

The best thing about Accident, Pou-Soi Cheang's latest film, is that its derivative but admirably realized style is taken from all the right sources. Though there are pronounced elements of The Conversation, probably Francis Ford Coppola's best film, by the end of Accident, Cheang, notorious for his more memorable films' abject cynicism, mostly does a fine job of copy-catting veteran filmmaker and Hong Kong movie god Johnny To. Accident's premise zeroes in on the mechanism that makes most of To's films tick: an obsession with choreography and more abstract kinds of synchronized movement. A group of killers, led by The Brain (Louis Koo), stages "accidents" to make their hits look natural. Naturally, after a hit goes bad, The Brain has to figure out who, if anyone, has betrayed him and if someone is planning to bump him off, too.

Much of the film is silent because it revolves around watching The Brain plot and pace around in hopes that he'll discover some clues, letting a normally talented Koo go on auto-pilot while he waits. In these periods of silence, Cheang shows us that he too can create some tension when he wants to. Dog Bite Dog (2006), the film that announced his arrival as a promising new voice, is all jet-black attitude and no technique. It made Cheang seem as if he had zero interest in maintaining narrative, aesthetic or thematic restraint for more than a scene or two at any given moment. Accident proves that Cheang can play To's game of suspense, even though he drops the ball at the film's underwhelming conclusion, which is all his baby. Sad to see such a fun little thriller tighten its screws so expertly right up until the end, when Cheang's established voice emerges and literally eclipses the rest of the film's skillful gamesmanship.

Note: Drink Pepsi. Or else.

Monday, November 16, 2009

400) Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008)

400) Anvil: The Story of Anvil (2008) Dir: Sacha Gervasi Date Released: April 2009 Date Seen: November 15, 2009 Rating: 1.75/5

While it stands to reason that one might shoot a doc about a band around its members' respective schedules but that doesn't mean that one should structure the film that footage will go into around their whims, too. Anvil: The Story of Anvil does not present the viewer with an authoritative profile of its subjects, seminal Canadian metal band Anvil, who, after releasing a dozen albums, still hadn't made it big. Since the release of Sacha Gervasi's doc, they've enjoyed great success, a legit record deal and some high-profile gigs they could never have dreamed of before. Too bad Gervasi, a well-established though hardly famous British comedian, didn't have the patience or the foresight to either stick it out with the boys a little longer to chronicle their impending success, or even just to provide his subjects with a context that extends beyond the skimpiest of clip show montages.

The most damning thing about Gervasi's approach to structuring the plot of Anvil: The Story of Anvil is that he's more than content to just go with the band's flow. Even before we're provided with a few good scenes of how shitty touring for the band has been of late, a couple of reasons why we should care about the band are tossed at us but nothing beyond general, high-falutin, though possibly true, quotes from established metal-heads, like Slash and Lars Ulrich. It's as if Gervasi were trying to deliberately undercut the impact of the fair amount of archival material at his disposal, especially the concert footage that he uses far too sparingly. This is especially unnerving when he uses footage of the band on a talk show, where the topic of the day was sexually explicit lyrics in metal music. After the host reads a sample of Anvil's own bawdy verses, Gervasi quickly cuts away, depriving the viewer of the pleasure of seeing Anvil give a response beyond their patented stoner smirks.

There's never a doubt that Anvil's story is in fact a good one, a story of men that dedicated their lives to something that has never really paid off beyond their own tentative sense of satisfaction. But Gervasi just doesn't do them justice, limiting any footage that illuminates the band's mind-set to whatever they think of at any given moment. We're only given semi-serious conjecture from the band as to why they've never taken off right before they send off a demo tape to an old acquaintance with a recording studio, and even then, it's skimpy, at best. More than likely, the fact that these guys aren't Rhodes Scholars make it easy to think that they don't have anything profound to say in their defense, making a default "Whatever We Can Get, While We Can Get It" approach a likely quick-fix solution. They're not getting any younger so let's get this fucker out the door now, now, now.

Note: As I was discussing my problems with the film last night with noted colleague Mark Pfeiffer, I came to the realization that I wasn't bothered by how the more emotionally-charged confrontations in the film look extremely staged as I had asserted but rather that the band is very conscious of having a camera on them as Mark did. They figure it's ok to ham it up a bit for their adoring, not-yet-existent public and I understand why Gervasi indulged that impulse--raw canned emotion!--but, eh, I could have lived without it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

399) Where the Wild Things Are (2009)

399) Where the Wild Things Are (2009) Dir: Spike Jonze Date Released: October 2009 Date Seen: November 15, 2009 Rating: 2.75/5

On the DVD for Spike Jonze's first feature film, Being John Malkovich (1999), there is a "Special Feature" that explicitly tells you what you're looking at before you select it: "Don't enter here, there is nothing here." That empty space, neatly tucked away as a throw-away gag, is an integral part of his films' worldview. There are always blank spots to be addressed, places that connect one world of stymied realities with another of promise and possibility: in Being John Malkovich, the tunnel that nebbish puppeteer Craig Ferguson uses to connect the "real world" with the inside of actor John Malkovich's brain; in Adaptation (2002), it's the blank page that screenwriter Charlie Kaufman confronts as he writes his next script; in Where the Wild Things Are, it's the desert that connects the forest where the most of the Wild Things live and where Carol (James Gandolfini), their most emotive resident, has built a miniature model world to project all his fantasies of a pain-free paradise onto.

The trouble is in that Max (Max Records), the boy who travels to the Wild Things' world to escape the "real" one, does not engage with that place. This is Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers's script's biggest logical flaw in their adaptation of Maurice Sendak's tellingly mute children's story: it's all about Max's regression, even when it's ostensibly about him growing up. The big lesson Max takes away at the film's end is that it's easy to hurt people when you're trying to make things up to them. But Max never really tries to engage with his Wild Things. Unlike The Wizard of Oz's Dorothy Gale, who doted on her companions' various neuroses, Max is more interested in distracting his creations from their depression than in actually confronting them. His answer is to build a fort, sleep on top of each other, throw dirt clods at one another, mistakes he's supposed to learn from when none of them actually solve the Wild Things' problems. But he doesn't. Max gets to sail away and remain a hero in their eyes, even after he's exposed as a fraud (he claims to be a king but is later revealed to be "Just Max," which according to Carol, "Isn't much of anything."). As he sets sail back to his home, the Wild Things cry for him and miss him dearly but they don't get any kind of support from him. If everybody hates a tourist, why don't these guys?

More than likely, Max's simplistic redemption comes from the fact that nobody, not Max and certainly not any of the Wild Things, wants to engage with the vast desert in their midst. Its the one in-between place in Wild Thing Land, that stands out because, as Carol tells Max, there's nothing there. Nevertheless, that's where everything comes together in Where the Wild Things Are, the neglected intermediate space where nothing happens and children grapple with their mistakes. Max never reflects on that place like Kaufman does with his typewriter or Ferguson does with Malkovich's portal. That lack is a critical omission because it ignores one of the most crucial parts of being a kid: the inescapable urge to grow up faster, to see things not as a child might but as an adult does. Max only sees things in his own terms, never daring to use the language of his single mother (Catherine Keener) or his teenage sister (Pepita Emmerichs) to get closer to them. One can hardly call that growing up.

Note: Yes, yes, I didn't address how pretty pretty shiny shiny the film was. That's because for me, that's a given when it comes to Jonze. His unique aesthetic sensibilities have never failed him and even if I don't think the film is as smart as it thinks it is, I have to say, it did look good while thinking it.

398) Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962)

398) Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962) Dir: Ralph Nelson Date Released: October 1962 Date Seen: November 14, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

It goes without saying that Rod Serling, as a writer, was a pioneer of the psychodrama, even if his tragic heroes are often more pathetic than sympathetic. Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), for all of its carefully constructed set-up, features one of his most pathetic: Louis "Mountain" Rivera (Anthony "I'll Play Any Race" Quinn) is a washed-up boxer with no skills outside of fighting and no prospects to find any other kind of work thanks to his intimidating size. Maish Rennick (Jackie Gleason), Rivera's not-so-trusty manager, has been betting against him for some time and Army (Mickey Rooney), his only vocal booster, is too small to be taken too seriously (so tempting to make a Tinker Bell joke here but well, you get the idea). Rivera's one hope of salvation, which he'll almost certainly have to squander to reach one of Serling's sufficient canned endings, comes from social worker Grace Miller (Julie Harris), who is more of a mother than a lover for him. The guy can't even catch a break from his new lady friend: she turns away at the last minute before the two lock lips because, well, he's Anthony Quinn (to make matters worse, he's wearing make-up but trust me, he'd still be Anthony Quinn otherwise).

Thankfully, just as Jackie Gleason's bravura performance overshadows Quinn's, so too does Ralph Nelson's direction eclipse Serling's solid B-movie script. Nelson starts off by taking cues from the poetic hucksterism of Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) (or is it Robert Montgomery's Lady in the Lake (1947)? Conjectures, facts, testimonies all welcome) with the opening sequence's use of first-person POV. Then he really takes off, evoking the Rivera, Maish and the rest's alienation in the way he films his subjects in relation to one another. Nelson uses a lot of front-lit close-ups and, during Gleason's chase sequence, a couple of terrific pans and crane shots, that recall the lurid look of Nicholas Ray's film noir. Though Serling is often depicted as a spare writer that only dealt with the fundamentals of his characters' environment, his script for Requiem is just icing compared to Nelson's greater efforts.

Notes: After a while, I couldn't help but laugh at Mickey Rooney's character. It was as if he only popped up to take a shot at Gleason, making each stand-off a pointless variation on a theme ("You fink!" "Anyone ever tell you what a prince of a guy you are?" etc.). At what point would you, as Jackie Gleason's character just want to just yell "To the moon!" and whack Rooney on the head with a rolled-up newspaper? I'd think pretty early on but that's just me.

What set did Quinn's Native American get-up come from: The Plainsman (1936) or They Died With Their Boots On (1941)? Better still, was Serling consciously taking a shot at Quinn's race-swapping by dudding him up as "The Indian?" I like to think so.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

397) Red Cliff II (2009)

397) Red Cliff II (2009) Dir: John Woo Date Released (kinda): November 2009 Date Seen: November 13, 2009 Rating: 3.75/5

Thematically more complex than Red Cliff: Part 1 but otherwise more of the same. See my piece on it and Part 1 for The House Next Door.

396) Weekend at Bernie's (1989)

396) Weekend at Bernie's (1989) Dir: Ted Kotcheff Date Released: July 1989 Date Seen: November 13, 2009 Rating: 3/5

I don't feel too strongly about this film either way, which is obviously too broad and loose for its own good. I laughed. I was engaged. I understand why it's not that great--inconsistent pacing, cliched characters, flat humor and on and on--but I could dig it, for the most part. Terry Kiser is especially funny as Bernie, but only once he's dead. One of those "If it were on TV, I'd watch it" films.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

395) Eden Log (2007)

395) Eden Log (2007) Dir: Franck Vestiel Date Released (DVD): May 2009 Date Seen: November 12, 2009 Rating: 3.25/5

I'm not sure I think very highly of this film but I just couldn't look away from it either. See my conflicted review for The House Next Door.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

394) The Red Shoes (1948)

394) The Red Shoes (1948) Dir: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger Date Released: October 1948 Date Seen: November 11, 2009 Rating: 4.75/5

Almost pitch-perfect. I am in awe of the way that the film's signature backdrop of a blue horizon that merges sky and sea so effortlessly encapsulates the film's concept of balance between artistic freedom and love of the outside world. Not much more to say except beautiful, amazing, excellent, blah blah blah. So glad I own this.