Friday, October 23, 2009

Movie Roundup: 10/23/09

Holy crap. I am never letting one of these posts get so out-of-hand again. I guess I misjudged myself: school doesn't cut down on actual movie watching; it just cuts down on the spare time in which I can write about them. I waited two months to post this; now I face the consequences. In the interests of time, I've cut down on the wordage for some of them, but that's all right: you, venerable and blessed reader, would probably be here all day otherwise. I wouldn't want that.

So. There are 31 movies here (an average of one movie every other day; I'm truly incurable). Lots of high scores, though, and very few low ones (and even an extremely rare 100). And of course, due to the fact that I'm taking a class on the Master, lots of Hitchcock as well.

As always: films previously unseen by me in bold italics, films I've seen before in orange. Let's do this.

The Scale
100-90: Blissful, orgasmic cinema. This is something extremely special.
89-80: An excellent, unmissable film. I probably own this (or will) and you should, too.
79-70: A very strong film well worth seeing.
69-60: This is good. It has some problems, but it's still an enjoyable piece of work.
59-50: The gray area. Certain things work about this, other things don't. It depends on mood and taste.
49-40: A mediocre or lackluster film. Not painful, but conspicuously flawed.
39-30: Plain bad. Don't go near this, please.
29-20: Incredibly terrible. Only worth a viewing if self-torture is desired.
19-0: Hooooo mama.

9 (Shane Acker, 2009) 62
If looks were everything, 9 would be one hell of a movie. The thing is beautiful: from its broad strokes to its minute details, every aspect of its (admittedly very eerie) animation style is just about perfect. I just wish the story had been ... well, a little more engaging.

The 39 Steps (Alfred Hitchcock, 1935) 75
Probably the first Hitchcock film that's regarded as a bona fide classic, and it's easy to see why. It's entertaining, suspenseful, intriguing, and just a lot of fun to watch. Robert Donat is great as the film's droll protagonist, and everything here just seems to fit together really, really well.

2046 (Wong Kar-Wai, 2004) 44
Gorgeous. Well acted. Amazingly directed. Pretentious. Boring. Depressing. That's pretty much all you need to know about 2046, should you ever want to watch it. It's dense and complicated and, despite an abundance of eye-popping visuals, almost entirely dialogue-driven. And at the end of the day, especially with the lack of a satisfying emotional payoff, it's really just not worth it. I remember watching this few years ago and finding it really interesting. Upon revisiting it, it doesn't hold up nearly as well. There are plenty of strong ideas here (it's not a case of style over substance by any means; there's definitely a story, its episodic nature just fails to hold interest), but it doesn't seem quite like Wong Kar-Wai knows how to properly execute them. Still, pretty as hell. Those futuristic sequences are lovely eye candy.

Adventureland (Greg Mottola, 2009) 73
Wow, this is not the movie the trailers advertised. As I'm sure was the case with many other folks, I immediately dismissed this when I saw the preview last winter: it looked like yet another juvenile gross-out flick, albeit one set in an amusement park, and I wouldn't have been caught dead going to see it. And then when the movie actually came out it was met with some alarmingly positive reviews. Well hell, thought I, perhaps there is more to this. I never got a chance to catch it in the theaters, but now here it is on DVD, and you know what? It is a very good movie. Far from what I was expecting, this is a pretty straightforward romance flick. And while it definitely still falls under the umbrella of "comedy," it takes itself far more seriously than I would've imagined, and the result is a surprisingly strong emotional component to counterpoint the occasional laugh-out-loud moment (the "Rock Me Amadeus" thing really amused me, for some reason). While not as audacious or as clever as the more recent (500) Days of Summer, it shares a lot of its insight, and that alone should be enough of a recommendation. Adventureland was directed by Greg Mottola, the man also responsible for Superbad. While not as gaspingly hilarious as its predecessor, this is arguably the more mature product. It's smart, it's sweet, and it's absolutely nothing like you were led to believe.

The Big Lebowski (The Coen Brothers, 1998) 91
This has become such a cult film that I really don't have much to say about it anymore. Either you're in the camp who think it's self-indulgent and weird for its own sake and find that immensely irritating, or you're in the camp who think it's self-indulgent and weird for its own sake and realize that that's pretty much what's so damn brilliant about it. The movie's just fucking bizarre, almost to the extent that you have to watch it multiple times before you've assured yourself it's safe to laugh at, but each viewing just makes it funnier and funnier. Not the Coens' best (sorry to be a traditionalist, that honor still goes to Fargo), but certainly among their finest work, and one of my favorite comedies ever.

The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963) 60
Yeah, I know it's considered one of Hitchcock's classics, but especially now that I'm older (I first saw this when I was, like, ten) it just comes across as kind of silly to me. It's well made, as pretty much all of Hitchcock's films are, and there are a couple scenes that really stick with you (the iconic playground sequence, of course, comprises the best few moments in the film), but overall this is just a shadow of what the man was truly capable of producing. Add that to the fact that, unlike lots of people, I'm really not frightened of birds whatsoever, and you have an intriguing if flawed curiosity. Of course everyone should see it once, but it's certainly not among the Master's finest.

Blackmail (Alfred Hitchcock, 1929) 57
Hitchcock's first talkie (and, indeed, the first talkie in Britain) is interesting from a historical setting (both in the way Hitchcock adapts to the changing medium, and in the way he comments on late-20s British society), but isn't quite as captivating plotwise as several of his other early films. The chase scene through the British Museum, for instance, becomes a bit tiresome. Not bad, though; just something that I'm sure the man could have done better.

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) 92
I saw this at The Guild two days before Polanski got arrested in Switzerland. I feel strangely guilty, like my doing so upset something in the cosmos. But hey, whatever happens to the man himself, nothing can erase the fact that this stylish, edgy, bleak-as-all-hell film is just stone-cold brilliant (and stone-cold is, indeed, the right way to describe it).

Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975) 59
I don't know. I guess I'm just not cut out for this Argento fellow. I don't want to say the movies are bad, really, because they aren't. I just don't like them very much. Deep Red straddles an awkward line between absurd played-for-laughs humor (a tiny car with a sinking passenger seat) and moments of pointlessly excessive gore (a man's head -- unnecessarily, I might add -- gets run over and crushed by a car). Truthfully, I can understand the appeal; it just doesn't tickle my fancy all that much. At least the soundtrack is bangin'.

Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989) 70
A provocative, if not especially surprising portrait of race relations in late-80s Brooklyn (and, I'd be willing to wager, inner-city anywhere in 2009). I appreciate what Lee is doing here, and the cinematography in particular is out of this world (you can almost feel the heat and sweat pouring out of the screen), though I do feel as if more recent films like La Haine and City of God cover similar territory more successfully. Still, the cut it makes is a deep one and I don't think anyone's going to argue that it's a very important film. Also: the opening credits sequence is among the best I've ever seen.

The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967) 96
An astoundingly wonderful film that just seems to get better and better, both as I age and it does. No movie has ever taken the boredom, confusion, and society-instilled claustrophobia of twentysomething masculinity and handled it as pitch-perfectly as it is handled here. That its final scene is one of the most excellent endings in all of cinema is merely one of the reasons that this one of the best movies ever made.

if.... (Lindsay Anderson, 1968) 61
Very, very, very weird (and utterly British) social commentary that doesn't really succeed at anything it tries to do, but somehow remains bizarrely captivating. It drifts freewheelingly between fantasy and reality (even though they're handled with exactly the same tone, I think it's pretty easy to tell which is which), switches randomly between B&W and color for no reason whatsoever, and fails to arrive at any kind of satisfying resolution (as mentioned before, I'm of the firm belief that the last five minutes exist solely within the imaginations of the three main characters). And yet, somehow, it's entirely watchable. I really can't explain it. Nonetheless, one indisputably good thing came out of it: this was the film that led Kubrick to cast Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (in which he gives one of the all-time great performances), so there you go.

Inland Empire (David Lynch, 2006) DNE
In a sense, this is the film Lynch has been destined to make his whole career: a dense, thick, disturbing, utterly incoherent labyrinth of remarkably well-composed moments that winds on and on and on through an astonishing, WTF-worthy 179-minute runtime. I regard it fondly as an Experience, but assinging a numerical score to it is just as impossible as recommending it to anyone who isn't already really confident in their Lynch fandom. And if you aren't sure or haven't seen a Lynch film, dear god don't start here: Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet are much, much, much more user-friendly.

In the Loop (Armando Iannucci, 2009) 83
Vicious, meanspirited political satire that is every bit as hilarious as it is nasty. It deftly combines the fly-on-the-wall atmosphere of something like The Office with the abject idiocy of Dr. Strangelove to form the best movie of its kind in years. Highly recommended.

I Sell the Dead (Glenn McQuaid, 2009) 55
A very uneven, but amusing and entertaining horror-comedy flick. McQuaid is far more interested in getting laughs than actually telling a story, so he throws in everything but the kitchen sink. Sometimes it works (the awesome vampire scene), sometimes it doesn't (yeah, okay, the so-called twist is really lame). On the whole, though, it delivers what is expected of it. It could be a whole lot better, but that's sort of beside the point.

Jacob's Ladder (Adrian Lyne, 1990) 47
An intriguing, well-directed, and even slightly creepy thriller that unfortunately suffers from a script that doesn't know how to handle these strengths. It isn't that the film is plagued by a lack of ideas -- on the contrary, there's practically an overabundance of them, and that's what makes it so damn hard for the script to reconcile all of them into a decent conclusion. Between war flashbacks, drug conspiracy, vivid hallucinations, and elaborate dream/reality confusion, there's a lot going on here; it's just a shame that the cleanest, tidiest interpretation of the ending (and thus the one I'm assuming is the "right" one) is actually the least satisfying. Oh well. While the film is unspooling, at least, it's captivating. I don't think there was a moment throughout when I wasn't engaged in Jacob's story and all of the bizarre, unsettling things that were happening to him. It's just ... ya know, when you get involved like that, you kind of wish the story would come full circle and really give you something to write home about. In the words of Kurt Vonnegut, also in reference to wartime death: "So it goes."

The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938) 76
Clever, endlessly entertaining black comedy/political thriller hybrid about a woman who disappears mysteriously during a train ride and the younger pair who are determined to find her. So basically it's like Flightplan except not a festering piece of shit.

Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944) 49
A very, very dated World War II statement that never really rises above its central one-location conceit. I didn't really care for it the first time I watched it, but the second time it's just -- pardon the description -- totally dry, if only for the fact that there are no surprises left to be had. It's the sort of thing where you get everything there is to get the first time; re-watching it simply isn't a rewarding exercise.

The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock, 1926) 63
Atmospheric, well orchestrated silent Hitchcock. It's very much a product of its time and can really only be watched for what it is (both a good thing and a bad thing), but it's easy to see based on its merits alone why Hitchcock found a name for himself really quickly.

Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960) 100
Still just about the closest to perfection that any film has ever come.

The five minutes of Gus Van Sant's Psycho I saw on TV a few weeks ago: -3

Rebecca (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940) 98
A lush, gorgeous, and utterly haunting experience that by all means deserves to be called one of the finest films ever made. It's definitely in my top ten, anyway.

[REC] (Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, 2007) 83
Almost certainly one of the finest horror films I have ever seen. At times almost unbearably tense and frequently genuinely frightening.

Scandal Sheet (Phil Karlson, 1952) 63
A fun, kind of nondescript but well-made film noir. Although it doesn't really give me any sort of incentive to revisit it, it entertains while it's unspooling, which means it does its job right.

Scream (Wes Craven, 1996) 79
Still fresh, clever, and funny after all these years.

Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943) 74
A uniformly nasty and often brilliant tale of familial suspicion that, unfortunately, suffers from an abrupt and overly Hollywood-ish ending that sort of robs the proceedings of its wicked edge. Still, the majority of it is excellent.

Sin Nombre (Cary Fukunaga, 2009) 90
A devastating, scary, and indelible meditation on gang violence and immigration that is still far and away one of the best new movies I have seen in years.

The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949) 76
The premise itself hasn't aged especially well, but the cinematography is the stuff of legends. Harry Lime has arguably the best character introduction scene in film history. Also: it's really hard to go wrong Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten. I mean, I'm just sayin', 'cause they were in that one other movie too.

The Vanishing (George Sluizer, 1988) 80
A potent and disturbing film that, for me at least, is far more unsettling than the average horror flick for the simple reason that it bypasses the irritating in-your-face tendency that characterizes many of the genre's entries and instead opts for a slow, deliberate pace that doesn't reveal its secrets all at once. To me, true horror comes not from being startled or presented with eerie elements of the supermatural, but with the implementation of frightening things that are utterly possible in everyday life; The Vanishing, especially with its two well developed main characters, is never anything less than believable. Although I gather I stand alone among the movie night crowd, I found it chilling and fascinating.

Where the Wild Things Are (Spike Jonze, 2009) 37
They managed to take one of the sweetest, most heartwarming children's books of all-time and turn it into something equal parts dreary, depressing, and tedious. Good job, guys. At least, thanks probably entirely to Jonze, it looks great, but that's about it.

Zebraman (Takashi Miike, 2004) 65
Typical Miike weirdness (if the words "typical" and "Miike" ever belong in the same sentence, which I don't think they do). If we're using, say, Audition or Ichi the Killer as a baseline, it's definitely one of his lighter films: self-consciously stupid and unapologetically campy, but also highly entertaining (as most Miike tends to be). Far from his best, but he's just such a bizarre director that I don't even really think I care how good or bad it is. I'm just glad to have seen it.

Zombieland (Ruben Flesicher, 2009) 84
It doesn't happen nearly often enough, but every once in a while a comedy comes along that just gets it right. Zombieland is that movie. Words can scarcely describe how good it is: it's delightful, fun, upbeat, and flat-out hilarious. The trailers made it look good; the actual film is clearly one of 2009's best.

I'll be back. Sooner this time, I promise!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Movie Roundup: 8/21/09

I promised I'd post one of these within a couple of days. And now, yay, I deliver on my promise! And not a second too soon: school starts Monday, which will of course drastically cut down on movie watching (except for the films of Alfred Hitchcock, on which I am taking a class). But for now, I've got a whole bunch of 'em for you. Same deal as always: previously seen movies in orange, movies new to me in white. Enjoy!

Eh, it's been a couple months. Let me bust this out again, just for reference:
The Scale
100-90: Blissful, orgasmic cinema. This is something extremely special.
89-80: An excellent, unmissable film. I probably own this (or will) and you should, too.
79-70: A very strong film well worth seeing.
69-60: This is good. It has some problems, but it's still an enjoyable piece of work.
59-50: The gray area. Certain things work about this, other things don't. It depends on mood and taste.
49-40: A mediocre or lackluster film. Not painful, but conspicuously flawed.
39-30: Plain bad. Don't go near this, please.
29-20: Incredibly terrible. Only worth a viewing if self-torture is desired.
19-0: Hooooo mama.

17 Again (Burr Steers, 2009) 54
In my defense, I didn't really watch this of my own volition. I was hanging out with a group of females and, in the interest of not spending five hours just trying to agree on something to watch, I settled back amenably and just let this one drift by me. It's an inoffensive but completely unspectacular fantasy-rom-com thing that, while mildly entertaining and amusing, can't help but call to mind the vastly superior Big and a slew of other films. Basically, the film just exists as an excuse for the ladies to gawk at Zac Efron (whom I am sure, true to the film's high capacity for realism, we all looked like when we were 17). It's his star vehicle, which I guess I'm cool with. It's just not a film aimed at my demographic. Still, not awful, and I'm sure it quite easily could have been. So that's something.

(500) Days of Summer (Marc Webb, 2009) 85
Now this is my kind of romantic comedy. Everything that can work about this does, and everything that shouldn't work is precisely what pushes the film out of standard-issue "relationship movie" fare into something much more effective and poignant. It wouldn't be too much of a stretch, really, to call this an anti-romantic comedy: you know within the first couple minutes that Tom and Summer aren't going to live happily ever after; the film all but spells it out. The journey, then, is seeing how they end up not being together, and for what reason, and what happens in the meantime. And if I've somehow made this sound dull and dry, nothing could be further from the truth. It's rich, warm, funny, clever, and creative, with characters I genuinely cared for and an insightful script that hardly ever hits a wrong note. Even the film's more self-conscious conceits, such as a nonlinear timeline or a practically winking-at-the-camera musical sequence, work beautifully in creating what is simply the sharpest and most honest movie of its kind to come along in quite some time. It may not be the sort of thing that will ever pack theaters, but it's one of those small films that's bound to give warm fuzzies to just about everyone who goes out of their way to catch it.

Barton Fink (The Coen Brothers, 1991) 64
Barton Fink is a very, very strange movie. It's strange even by Coen Brothers standards, which should mean something if you've ever seen one of their films. It's so strange, and certain events come so abruptly out of left-field, that while I was watching I was absolutely sure the film didn't work. Now, thinking back over it, I am not so convinced. I think it does work, albeit in a very unconventional and not entirely successful way. The film more or less follows the tried-and-true "writer's block" story for its first two thirds; insofar as this takes us, the movie is excellent. The Coens take dead aim at the movie industry and those who populate it: John Turturro is perfect as the tortured, struggling screenwriter, Michael Lerner is gleefully reprehensible as the studio exec, and John Mahoney is uncanny as the alcoholic trainwreck who is obviously supposed to be William Faulkner. It's when the film takes a sudden left turn in its final act that the story threatens to go off the rails. I'm not entirely sure what the Coens are getting at via this resolution, though I'm familiar enough with their output to be sure they did it for a very specific reason. Even so, it's confounding and at odds with everything that's come before it. Despite that flaw, though, it's still an interesting film. Though far from their best work (which was, of course, still yet to come), it's the work of two talented men with an offbeat agenda and an excitingly unusual way of looking at the world.

Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1996) 61
All right. I have successfully collected the entire set. Having now seen all of Wes Anderson's movies to date, I can finally make the definitive claim I've been inching towards for ages: I just really don't like the guy all that much. His droll, self-consciously quirky films (the most popular of which are probably Rushmore and The Life Aquatic) seem to really strike a chord with some people, but I just find them smug and irritating. They're never bad, really (with the exception of Rushmore, which I find insufferable), and the judicious helping of (clearly influential) absurdist humor that defines each one is always good for a few laughs, but at the end of the day none of them really add up to much more than pointless excursions into self-aware peculiarity. Bottle Rocket, his first film and possibly his most solid, suffers all the same pitfalls. It tells a story that tries so desperately to be clever and peppers its every scene with so much smirking jokery that I almost wished I could've taken Anderson and Owen Wilson aside and told them, begged them, to just ... relax a bit. Don't try so damn hard to make something "different." The desperation shows, and it impacts what could've been a highly enjoyable, unique little comedy. It is still entertaining, but I also feel like it could have been a lot more than that. That's the feeling I get from all of Anderson's films, really. Maybe one of these days he'll get that feeling, too, and do something about it.

Bubba Ho-tep (Don Coscarelli, 2002) 68
I'm serious: if the idea of Elvis and a black JFK battling mummies in a nursing home doesn't strike you as the best thing ever, we can't be friends anymore. Because guess what: it is the best thing ever. This was, I believe, the first movie I ever saw at the Guild (back during its initial release in '02 or '03). I loved it then, and I still have a soft spot for it now. I mean, seriously, though. Bruce Campbell as Elvis. And a black JFK. Battling a mummy. How can you not be cool with that? This should be, like, the most popular movie ever made or something.

District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009) 46
Again, the advance buzz baffles me. This has been heralded as "surprisingly original," "a novel creation," "ingenious and creative" -- the whole gamut. And not by people who don't know what they're talking about. This kind of talk gets a fella like me excited, see, and it makes me all the more disappointed when the damn thing turns out to be exactly like dozens upon dozens of movies I've seen before. This could have been something special: its mockumentary-style intro flirts with the kind of excitement and originality that, had the film sustained it, could've made this into an exceptional slice of sci-fi. Unfortunately, the clever stylistics go away as the story unfolds and we're left with what I found to be a very pedestrian shit-blows-up action movie. Far from being a captive audience, I spent much of the last hour rather bored. Even worse than that, the script pretty severely loses focus as the affair rolls on. What exactly gets resolved at the end? Who's the real hero here? How is the nutty Nigerian gun cult even necessary to the proceedings? And why, oh god, why does something as potentially intelligent as this feel the need to cop fighting machines from Transformers in order to get cheap thrills? So, I'm sorry. It seems like I'm a dissenting vote on this one, but I was far from impressed. There's nothing here that hasn't been done before a whole lot better, and it's just depressing to see something that could be thoughtful and poignant (obviously they're shooting for an apartheid allegory) streamline itself into a loud, handheld-ridden actionfest just to turn a buck.

Down by Law (Jim Jarmusch, 1986) 72
It's very easy for me to see how someone could get really turned off by Jarmusch. He's definitely an acquired taste. Not only are his films very slow, but they also have an odd sense of humor and very rarely arrive at any sort of conventional resolution. Still, I don't know why, but I really like the guy. Every one of his films I have seen has wooed me in some way or other, and Down by Law is no exception. This is one of those movies where the experience is far more satisfying than any sort of synopsis. Really, all that happens is that three deadbeats get thrown in jail, hang out in jail for a while, and then escape to a bizarre deus ex machina, but nonetheless I still had a lot of fun watching it. Roberto Benigni, an almost complete unknown at the time, is a hoot as the ingratiatingly optimistic Italian tourist, and it's always interesting to see Tom Waits show up in a film, regardless of what it might be. So, yeah. I don't know. If you like Jarmusch, give this one a try. It's really entertaining. If you don't like Jarmusch, this isn't going to do anything to change your mind. And if you don't know Jarmusch, I'd rather you hit up Stranger Than Paradise first. But be sure to come back to this one. It's a goodie.

Drugstore Cowboy (Gus Van Sant, 1989) 87
A superb addiction drama. Gus Van Sant is an eclectic and fascinating filmmaker, and over his career he's traversed the very good (Milk, My Own Private Idaho), the all right (Elephant, Paranoid Park), and the just plain awful (Last Days, the Psycho remake). After years of digging, I have finally found the masterpiece I always knew he had in him. Who would've thought it'd turn out to be one of the first films he ever made? This is one of those godsend movies where everything falls beautifully into place: the very straightforward story, despite being nothing we haven't seen before, is never anything less than engrossing; the performances -- especially Matt Dillon's, which should have at least been nominated for an Oscar, if not awarded the trophy -- are tremendous; and the preaching and moralizing, which always inevitably creep into this sort of affair, are more or less nonexistent (which makes the proceedings all the more potent). It's grimly amusing when it needs to be, suitably tense when its situations call for it, breathtakingly poignant at all the right moments (there's a scene where Dillon is talking to a secretary about entering a methodone program that shows more truth and humanity over the course of two minutes than some entire films have), and just about as satisfying overall as it could possibly be. I loved this film.

Exotica (Atom Egoyan, 1994) 89
Holy shit. And here I was, absolutely sure I would not be seeing a more rewarding film than Drugstore Cowboy for months to come. That I had the pure luck of watching Exotica just a few hours later adds up to the single most satisfying movie-watching day in longer than I care to think about. This is an incredible achievement, more assured and affecting than I ever would have expected, even granted its barrage of glowing reviews. I've fallen prey to critical overhype plenty of times before, but this time the accolades are just fucking true. Exotica is a tour de force of human emotion, slithering deftly from isolation and loss to hopefulness, and back again. I can't even begin to express my scorn for the person who thought it'd be a good idea to market this as a sultry, sexy, erotic thriller. Despite occurring largely within the walls of a strip club, nothing could be further from the truth. This is a film about pain and suffering, about the richness and three-dimensionality of its characters; sex is the last thing on anyone's mind. The puzzle-like narrative is constructed somewhat out of linear order not as a means by which to fool or one-up the audience, but as a way to slowly develop its characters and shine light on the connections between them. As more and more details come into focus, the better we understand these people, and the better we're able to relate to them. It is not until the very last scene that the film has divulged everything, and even then it doesn't condescend to spell everything out; there's plenty of ambiguity and mystery left over, as well there should be. This is brilliant stuff: Egoyan's script is exhilaratingly unconventional, but impressively accomplished. The way he translates it to the screen shows the same caliber of talent. The cinematography is lush and dark and gorgeous, the performances he draws from his actors are top-notch, and the emotional impact of the film as a whole far surpasses anything I can reasonably put into words. It's a damn masterpiece. That's all there is to it.

Eyes Wide Shut (Stanley Kubrick, 1999) 75
You've got to understand that I'm a big Kubrick fan. I'm willing to defend the guy well past the point where many others would give up in frustation. That being said, I'll admit Eyes Wide Shut is far from his best film (it wouldn't even make my top five), but it's still a very solid and assured piece of filmmaking. There's also a certain air of finality about it that makes me not dissatisfied that it was his last film. Still, its flaws are very apparent: first of all, at 159 minutes, it's way damn too long. Even at his best, Kubrick was always deliberately paced (go back and revisit 2001 or The Shining -- you'll see what I mean), but rarely has his work seemed as unnecessarily protracted as it does in some of these scenes. Also: the story is appallingly thin. Taken one scene at a time, the film is positively mesmerizing. Taken as a whole, it really does not add up to much. So I suppose that's the secret to the enjoyment of the film: just lose yourself, and when it comes time to reflect on the film as a whole, simply regard it on a symbolic level rather than a literal one. Kubrick was a master stylist, and he creates a strange, surreal, potent atmosphere with Eyes Wide Shut that, frankly, I don't think could have been pulled off by anyone else. The very tripped-out gothic orgy scene in particular should go somewhere in the pantheon of cinematic brilliance, and for my money there are enough moments like this and enough of a sexually-charged undercurrent to make the film incredibly compelling despite all of its flaws. Whether or not you agree depends entirely on the amount of goodwill you're willing to grant its creator.

The Happiness of the Katakuris (Takashi Miike, 2001) 79
If not the best, it's really hard to argue that Takashi Miike is far and away the most fascinating of Japanese directors. Not only is the man capable of directing three or four features per year, but each one is so radically different that, were it not for his very distinctive fingerprints, it'd be difficult to guess they were the work of the same person. While I shy away from calling it the best of his films, I can say without hesitation that The Happiness of the Katakuris is most certainly the most flat-out entertaining (and, consequently, my favorite thus far). I can't remember the last time I laughed this hard at a film. It's beyond absurd -- things happen at random without any sort of logical progression, there are unexpected outbursts of song, anybody can (and often does) die at any minute, and nothing really makes terribly much sense. At all. And yet somehow the damn thing is kind of brilliant. It's anarchic in the same way The Ruling Class might have been 35 years ago: it knows it's hilarious, but it exists to amuse itself instead of amusing anybody else. In the wrong hands, this is disastrous (Mars Attacks! comes to mind). In Miike's, it's riveting. I can't really explain it. There's nothing about this movie that should be brilliant, but dammit -- that's just what it is. And what a far cry it is from, ya know, anything else the man has ever made. But I guess that's a good thing. I mean, I can't imagine there could ever be two movies quite like this one. The world might explode.

The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2009) 68
To date, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker is probably the most "critically acclaimed" movie of 2009. There's been nary a bad review to be found. I want to set the record straight, though. Is it a good film? Absolutely. Is it one of the greatest war movies ever made, as some have said? Well, lest we be so eager to discount the likes of Apocalypse Now and Schindler's List, not hardly. I think the reason why critics have gone so apeshit for it isn't because it really is some sort of masterpiece, but because -- like it or not -- it's still way better than the majority of the wannabe-didactic Iraqi bullshit Hollywood has been putting out. I'm as opposed to our actions in Iraq as anyone, but if I have to sit through one more sneering cinematic diatribe on the subject, I might just kill someone. The Hurt Locker, like an angel, avoids politics. It's a film not about the war, but about the smaller things that happen within it. When its action scenes get going, things get really tense really fast. This is the distinction between action in the blockbuster sense and action in the sense of something more satisfying; the difference between wanting to see shit blow up and, in this case, praying to god it doesn't. There are at least three or four edge-of-your-seat suspense sequences here, and it is to these that the film is anchored. Where it falters is in its unwillingness to properly develop its main character: the reckless, borderline psychotic Sgt. James is one of the most compelling protagonists in a good long while. Given the right motivation and backstory, this could be a zinger of a film. As the film presents him, though, he's merely an intriguing curiosity who serves to get the adrenaline pumping. And that's a shame. The good news is, there's plenty of adrenaline and tension to go around. If that's what you're in the mood for, step right up. I wanted a little bit more, but even in my mild dissatisfaction I can't deny that this is a very strong film.

Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009) 94
Simply put, films like Inglourious Basterds are why I love movies. This is a virtuoso piece of filmmaking, overflowing with audacity, originality, and straight-up adrenaline. It is everything I could have wanted from it and more, and when it comes time to count down the best films of 2009, I have a really strong feeling about what's going to be #1. Not that I didn't expect this: when I see a film by Quentin Tarantino, I expect nothing less than a masterpiece. Of course there was the usual amount of trepidation about the film living up to expectations and so forth, but I quickly forgot about this as I settled back into the most immersive and satisfying moviegoing experience I've had in more time than I care to think about. It's rare to see a movie where everything clicks. It's even more of a treat when everything clicks in such a dazzling, invigorating sequence of events that you wish the film would never end. I've endured some interminable 90-minute films; Inglourious Basterds' 152 minutes almost seem nonexistent. The way Tarantino deliberately crafts his characters and skillfully builds his storyline is a testament to his mastery. The film never rushes anything, but it never feels drawn-out; it is entertaining from scene one (and scene one is, perhaps, the single finest scene from any film all year), funny when it needs to be, shocking and ruthlessly tense when the ever-escalating story calls for it, and never anything less than an absolute joy to behold. If Christoph Waltz is not given Oscar consideration for his performance as Hans Landa, the Academy needs to have their collective head examined. Likewise, if this film does not do tremendously well at the box office, the world at large just won't know what they're missing. Especially after enduring so many bad sequels and cheap retreads, everyone of a like mind needs to behold what Tarantino has accomplished here. It does the soul good.

In the Company of Men (Neil LaBute, 1997) 74
A fucking vicious piece of work, which is exactly what's so damn good about it. I'm always slightly irritated by potentially incisive films that self-consciously strive to be soft around the edges in order to make themselves more marketable. In the Company of Men is a film that doesn't care. It's nasty, hateful, brutal, and mean. And while it's the sort of thing that's more or less impossible to sit through without feeling some pretty intense discomfort, it's also sobering and refreshing. For all its meanspiritedness, one cannot accuse the film of being bad (LaBute definitely overuses the long shot, I think, but that's a total trifling nitpick). In hindsight, it's easy to see why this was the film that put Aaron Eckhart on the map: his character, more so than the vast majority of screen villains I have ever seen, embodies a natural, coldblooded evil that simply cannot be put into words. The performance is dynamic, and the shining center of what is overall an incredibly ballsy production. Even twelve years later, the film has absolutely zero potential for wide recognition, but all film buffs should do themselves a favor and check it out. It will never ever ever be referred to as a feel-good movie, but at the same time it's so nice to watch a film that not only has teeth so razor-sharp they draw blood, but one that actively enjoys doing so.

The Loved One (Tony Richardson, 1965) 70
In many ways, The Loved One unfolds like a 60s prototype of the kind of film Sacha Baron Cohen or Parker and Stone would make today. There's a good deal of gleefully wicked, razor-sharp satire here, but it's punctuated with an uncomfortable propensity to underpin everything with unnecessary gross-out gags. And no matter how funny the filmmakers might think these are, they can't help but undermine the sharper and more pointed material. For every pitch-perfect, spot-on scene like the one where the pet undertakers shoot the dead bird off in a rocket, there's an off-putting one like the disgusting and not even slightly amusing montage of the morbidly obese Mrs. Joyboy stuffing her face with food. Even so, I'd say the good handily outweighs the bad. It takes balls to even make a movie this irreverent, and even more balls to market it as "the film with something to offend everyone" (which ... yeah, it probably is). I'm sure as time goes by I'll come to forget the icky stuff and remember it fondly for what it, for the most part, is: a fearless, jet-black comedy about the funeral industry that is still more or less unique in its approach and, indeed, has more than its fair share of thrills to balance out the filmmakers' somewhat indulgent tendency to just go off the rails completely.

No Country for Old Men (The Coen Brothers, 2007) 90
I think I exhausted pretty much everything I have to say about this back when it came out a couple years ago (god, has it already been that long?), but it's still an exceptional film that holds up very, very well. It's unconventional as hell, too: how many movies can you think of that basically feature no soundtrack whatsoever and have three main characters that never meet any of the others face-to-face? I'd be hard-pressed to name even one more, for both. Anyway, this sucker cleaned up at the Oscars, and deservedly so. Bardem's chilling performance is on its way to becoming iconic, and the film as a whole can proudly stand as far and away the best western of the 2000s.

Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965) 59
This is sort of a hallmark of 1960s horror, and while it doesn't quite work for me, I must concede that it's an intriguing and cleverly conceived mood piece. I think my biggest problem is that, dammit, it just doesn't scare me. At all. In fact, if we're going on thrills alone, the movie is almost completely ineffectual. This wouldn't be as big of a deal for me if the film hadn't been built up as omg one of the scariest things ever (thanks, dad), but it was. I mean, sure, there are some eerie elements (the hands in the hallway, the highly symbolic cracks in the walls), but they're not frightening. They're just sort of evocative. So I'm left to admire the film based on technique alone. Luckily, Polanski knows exactly what he's doing. He creates an atmosphere nicely and knows how to skillfully build on it until the action reaches its logical breaking point. I just wish that breaking point were a bit more visceral. At least for me, anyway. God knows the film's plenty scary enough for some. I just wish I could be included, because it is a good film. It just happens to be one that also feels strangely incomplete.

Rocket Science (Jeffrey Blitz, 2007) 30
Rocket Science is a remarkably miserable movie. It is dreary to the fullest extent of its abilities, which are considerable. It also thinks it's funny, though by whose judgment I have no idea. This, a film ostensibly about high school debating, was recommended to me by a friend who knew that I spent many a weekend in high school competing at speech tournaments. In hindsight, I hope to God the recommendation didn't come because the main character reminded him of me. The so-called "hero" of this vapid ordeal has exactly zero likable qualities. He stutters, he's antisocial, he obviously has some pretty serious emotional problems (unless you count getting drunk and throwing a cello through someone's window as typical teenage behavior), and he's suitably lacking in any sort of personality. In other words, I couldn't have given a damn about him. He's not exactly the sort of guy who puts you on the edge of your seat rooting for him. The even worse news is, the film doesn't like him either. So for 100 minutes the kid gets pushed around, wrestles unsuccessfully with his personal demons, and ultimately ends up in a place arguably less desirable than he was when the film started. This is an underdog story; one might reasonably expect an arc with an ultimate triumph. Here, not so much. And when a comedy about a troubled teenager attempting to overcome his obstacles and emerge victorious accomplishes neither being amusing nor its story-based goals, I think it's safe to say the film as a whole is a complete failure. That it's also a wholly depressing experience is just an added bonus. At the very least, the film could've used more smartass, banjo-playing dry cleaner guy. He was at least somewhat interesting.

The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976) 38
An discomfitingly misguided film, not to mention ludicrous and slow as molasses. Roger Ebert hit the nail on the head: if The Tenant weren't a Roman Polanski film, it'd be laughed off as total garbage. Clearly he's trying to one-up himself here and outdo Repulsion; to say he fails miserably would be an understatement. Repulsion was not a bad film, but it felt like a somewhat undercooked one; still, it was forgivable. It was the work of a younger and less experienced director. The Tenant is the work of a man who had just finished making Chinatown, one of the greatest detective movies of all-time, and as such it's just plain embarrassing. I suppose this could've worked as a simple paranoia story. It would've been predictable, but with Polanski's talent for conjuring up atmospherics, it still might've been decent. But when the main character (played by Polanski himself, no less) starts to dress in drag and trip out and basically go down the rabbit hole, the movie effectively reaches the point of no return. The slowness of the narrative is frustrating up to that point, but when it chooses to reward us with that nonsense, it becomes flat-out tedious. And then there's the ending. Oh god, the ending. As if it weren't enough to see Polanski in drag and makeup hurl himself through a third-story window, you get to see him -- bruised and bloodied -- crawl up the stairs and do it again. If this were a smarter film, I'd suspect some sort of tongue-in-cheek parody at work. But no. This is just fucking stupid. And to think this has the audacity to call itself a horror film. What a riot. The only thing that's scary is that it got made in the first place. The rest of it's just morbidly fascinating, like watching a trainwreck. You know it's awful, but somehow it's just impossible to look away.

'Til next time, film fans. Au revoir.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Chris' Summer Mix 2009

At the end of every summer, either as a birthday present or a going-back-to-school present or whatever, I make a mix. I used to make tons of mixes. I'd make 'em for any purpose or any person or any occasion. Over time, what with the advent of the playlist and me actually finding better things to do with my time, the golden Summer Mix has more or less become the only one I make every year (barring road trips or something that might call for it).

The criterion for song selection is very simple: it can be any song from any year, just so long as I like it and it reminds me in some way of the summer now gone. This usually results in an array of some of my most-played tracks from May to August, select songs by bands I have seen live, or songs that have just plain dropped into my life at particularly opportune times. In short, these are all songs that mean something to me and that, given enough time, I expect to be especially evocative of summer '09.

Are there any songs that got left out due to CD time constraints? Well, yeah. In a perfect world, CDs would be ~90 minutes long so that I could include Archive's "Controlling Crowds" and The Mae Shi's "R U Professional?" But so it goes. The 19 songs that made the cut are, I think, the "right" 19, so that's good enough for me.

It's also become frighteningly apparent to me just by glancing at last year's mix how much further down the synth slope I've fallen. With a few synthy exceptions (M83, Kleerup, Cut Copy), 2008's was a rock mix. But now, with a few rock exceptions (Sunset Rubdown, Brand New, dredg, and a couple others), 2009's is predominately a synth mix. The tastes, they are a-changin'.

Chris' Summer Mix 2009:
01. Junior Boys, "Double Shadow" [4:22]
02. Sunset Rubdown, "Silver Moons" [4:45]
03. Empire of the Sun, "Standing on the Shore" [4:24]
04. Bat for Lashes, "Daniel" [4:11]
05. The Presets, "This Boy's in Love" [4:12]
06. Brand New, "The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows" [4:01]
07. Fischerspooner, "Never Win" [3:59]
08. Pure Reason Revolution, "Bullitts Dominae" [5:22]
09. dredg, "I Don't Know" [3:45]
10. Chromeo, "Fancy Footwork" [3:18]
11. Das Racist & Wallpaper, "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell" [3:40]
12. Innerpartysystem, "The Way We Move" [3:27]
13. Rinôçérôse, "Panic Attack" [4:02]
14. Pnau, "With You Forever" [3:34]
15. The Kingsbury Manx, "Well, Whatever" [3:11]
16. Immaculate Machine, "Broken Ship" [3:33]
17. War Tapes, "She Lied" [3:22]
18. 23RAINYDAYS, "Monster" [4:42]
19. VNV Nation, "Where There Is Light" [6:20]
Total Time: 78:17

And of course it's horribly presumptuous of me to assume anyone might be interested in hearing this crap, but just in case, I've prepared a handy little .rar file that can be downloaded here. Trust me, it's worth it just for track #11 (and the way that, when listened to in sequence, it kind of awesomely transitions into #12).

It all just makes me wonder what 2010's mix will look like. For all I know, it could be nothing but Bavarian folk music. I'm known to frighten myself like that sometimes. Anyway. There we have it.

For what it's worth, a new Movie Roundup will arrive very shortly. Like, within a couple days. So stay tuned for that!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Movie Roundup: 7/14/09

It's a long one this time. I guess that's what happens when you're on summer break and you go a month without posting. Same deal as always. Onward!

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Sacha Gervasi, 2009) 56
Unfortunately mismarketed as a "real-life Spinal Tap" (or, more to the point, lazily pigeonholed as such), Anvil! is well put-together but alarmingly dreary. It's all about expectations. I expected this -- like the film it's being played up against -- to be funny, entertaining, and incisive; instead, what I got was melancholy and sometimes flat-out depressing. I likewise expected there to be some sort of triumph in Anvil's never-say-die career history to make all the unpleasantries worth sitting through. There isn't. The film attempts to fabricate one (and it's disturbingly close to the ending of Spinal Tap), but it doesn't take much at all to blow a giant hole in it. It's just a big ol' fat cheat on the face of a documentary that is perhaps a bit too lifelike. I realize the ridiculousness of this criticism, but I can't think of any other way to put it. Watching Anvil! is a miserable experience. If I wanted to be reminded about how life is a harsh, cruel, difficult exercise in following fruitless dreams, I would've just, ya know, spent the evening living.

Attack the Gas Station! (Sang-Jin Kim, 1999) 74
This is every bit as ridiculous as I remembered it, and that's a very, very good thing. There's not really much to say about it; it's the sort of movie that seems to actively avoid discussion in favor of just being watched. So watch it. Just as long as you know exactly what you're signing up for before you watch it, I can't even begin to imagine how you might be disappointed. It's colorful, hilarious, absurd, bizarre, and fuckin' fun as hell.

Better Luck Tomorrow (Justin Lin, 2003) 78
There's a lot to be said for loving a movie unconditionally, for just unquestioningly accepting it for what it is. I know Better Luck Tomorrow is a very flawed film. Its flaws become more and more apparent to me every time I watch it. But you know what? I don't care. I love it. I think it's a great film. The best I can figure is that it appeals to some sort of unconscious impulse, because it's not usually my position (at all) to just overlook rather noticeable shortcomings. But rather than dwell on what it might not be, I prefer to admire the film for what it is: an affecting, well crafted high school drama that -- despite several plot developments that seriously stretch the bounds of believability -- seems to capture a particular teenage mindset surprisingly well. That's why I like it so much. Not because it's some tough, gritty, realistic teen crime saga, but because it works as a fantasy. It bottles the oft-unspoken desires of a generation of overachievers and plants them onscreen in a way that is watchable, entertaining, and stylish. Need I ask more of it?

Broken Wings (Nir Bergman, 2002) 63
I think this is one of those films that one has to look at in a certain way in order to appreciate. From a strictly narrative standpoint, it is surprisingly empty: characters talk, a central event occurs, characters talk some more, the central event resolves itself completely independently of any of said talking, movie ends. This doesn't exactly amount to a compelling storyline. So where the film does work is on an emotional plane. There's a good deal of socioeconomic and familial conflict at work here, and while I never got the feeling that the film ever actually solves any of it, I was also keenly aware that -- to use a cliche -- the journey is more important than the destination. Bergman wastes no time throwing his viewers into the lives of this family, and slowly we become involved enough to legitimately care about what happens to them. The film is perhaps a bit too short and the details a bit too underdeveloped to provide the full range of emotion I think Bergman is going for, but nonetheless I finished the film feeling uplifted and satisfied, and that makes Broken Wings something of a small victory.

The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson, 2009) 43
A very confused film. It has no clue what it wants to be. Comedy? Drama? Thriller? Mystery? Adventure? Romance? In its indecision it elects to be all of the above, but instead of emerging in the form of some genre-bending brilliance (the sort of thing I'd frankly have expected from the guy who made 2005's excellent 40s noir throwback Brick), it just winds up a confounding and muddled mess. And I hate that it does this to itself, because parts of it -- for instance, the majority of the droll, absurdly humorous bits -- work really well. But then whenever it starts to really get going with something, it pulls another card out of its sleeve and effectively shoots itself in the foot. By the time the film is over (roughly thirty minutes past the point where I thought it was going to end, and likely the place where it should have), it has twisted and turned and conned and crossed and double-crossed and genre-hopped and tone-shifted so many times that you just kind of want it to put itself out of its misery. And so it does, but unsatisfyingly. The Brothers Bloom is the very definition of a sophomore slump: a follow-up to a very successful, clever debut that tries way too hard to outdo its predecessor and ultimately just gets lost in its own pretensions. Rian Johnson is clearly a talented guy. He knows what he's doing. Hopefully by film #3 he'll have gotten his bearings together and will have the right stuff to knock us out again. I'm counting on it, anyway.

Clean, Shaven (Lodge Kerrigan, 1993) 55
I know why this has been called a great film. I see exactly what Kerrigan is trying to do. And now that I see this, it's time for him to move on and make a better movie. Its problem is that it plays out more like an art school exercise than it does a feature meant to be viewed by real people. Sure, as a psych student I can attest that it probably is the closest filmic representation of schizophrenia yet put onscreen, but that doesn't necessarily make it interesting. It just makes it very, very difficult. And I have nothing against difficult films. Some of the greatest movies ever made are notorious for being such. It's just that Clean, Shaven, much like schizophrenia itself, provides no in for the unafflicted. It's an isolated entity, cold and detached not necessarily by its own choosing but just by nature. That's what makes it so hard to warm up to. If all of the action is on the inside and we the viewers have no way of getting in there, what's left for us? An unsettling but ineffective curiosity. Oh well. Even still, I wish we'd watched this in my abnormal psych class instead of Diary of an Anorexic or whatever; this is much better.

Eternal Summer (Leste Chen, 2006) 83
God, this gets better and better the more I think about it. This is a beautiful, understated gem that is, I think, doomed to be misunderstood due to the way it's been marketed. Far from being exclusively the "gay film" the case makes it out to be, this is really more a poignant examination of human relationships, platonic, sexual, or otherwise. Sure, one of the protagonists is gay, but the other isn't. Therein lies a large portion of the film's conflict (which proves itself to have far more depth than one might expect from such a setup), but it also takes care to explore hugely credible themes of loneliness, longing, jealousy, and intimacy. Shane's reasons for doing what he does are entirely believable (though steeped in a certain melancholy desperation), while Jonathan's gradual realization of the impossibility of what he wants is very effective. Yes, the film does have its flaws, and it's certainly not for all tastes, but I found it both engaging and incredibly moving.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (David Yates, 2009) 85
I'm going to share my controversial opinion. I think the Harry Potter movies are incalculably better than the books. I've read all the books and seen all the movies thus far, and nothing is going to change my mind. Whereas the books are turgid, overlong, and occasionally dull, the films take Rowling's source material and condense it into something genuinely exciting. Half-Blood Prince is not just one of the crown jewels of the Harry Potter film canon (Azkaban is still probably my favorite, but this is a close second), but a great movie by any standards. By now, we've all been immersed in this universe long enough to not require introductions. Knowingly, the film plunges us straight into the action. With its typically arresting visuals (seriously, these are some of the best-looking movies ever made) and veritable who's-who of British actors (Jim Broadbent is excellent as Slughorn, and Alan Rickman continues his series-dominating role as Snape) in tow, the movie plows ahead breathlessly for its 153 minutes. Many other films would make this runtime seem interminable (scroll down to P), but if anything this film almost feels too short. But I think they've made the right cuts and applied the appropriate changes; the final product is lean and easily digested, without the ponderousness of the 600+ page novel to throw around. In short: this is dazzling mainstream entertainment. It hits all the right notes, it's compulsively and joyously watchable, and -- series placeholder or not -- it's one of the best films of the year.

Igby Goes Down (Burr Steers, 2002) 48
A dull, unexceptional, storyless tale of rich-kid angst. Those of us who have read The Catcher in the Rye have had all of this before, and infinitely better. At least Holden Caulfield is identifiable; Igby's just kind of a prick. More to the point, there's really no one at all in this film worth caring about. It's mildly funny throughout, but so what? It doesn't really have anything else going for it, and for what it's trying to do it really needs to. It's not a bad film, perce; it's just a startlingly mediocre and forgettable one. I mean, I watched this thing three days ago and I can't remember half of what happened. That can't be good.

La Femme Nikita (Luc Besson, 1990) 77
It's rare to see a film this flashy also have the appropriate amount of substance to back it up. For all its action movie stylings, La Femme Nikita is really just a glorified character piece. That it's successful in both regards makes it both highly entertaining and emotionally rewarding. What emerges is a very strong, assured piece of filmmaking. Besson has an appealing eye for aesthetics, and the visuals alone probably would have been enough for me to be decently satisfied by the film (the blue-tinted robbery scene that kickstarts the film is especially memorable), but it always goes one better and actually has something happening onscreen to complement the eye candy. The somewhat episodic story is deliberately paced, but engaging. I had no trouble whatsoever getting involved in Nikita's situation, in her actions and in her psychology. She's an appealing character given a very strong performance by a highly appealing actress. It's ... hell, it all just works. It's not an unqualified success, mind you. There are small gripes here and there, as there often are, but it's certainly not something I'd be bothered by watching again.

Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009) 70
Moon is not great science fiction, but it is a solid and entertaining piece of cinema. I think the reason why many have been led to call it great sci-fi is just the simple fact that films like this are very hard to come by these days. This isn't your standard-issue kinetic, things-blow-up-in-space action thriller. It's a character piece through and through, sometimes slow moving, but never dull for an instant. Comparisons to a certain Stanley Kubrick film are inevitable, but the similarities are only surface-level. As a film, this can proudly stand on its own, and that alone should be reason enough to see it. To discuss plot points would be to divulge spoilers, which of course it would be criminal for me to do, but suffice it to say that while Moon does not break any new ground conceptually, it deftly handles what it brings to the table. The clean, simple, well thought-out execution is refreshing. Also impressive, and indeed what likely makes the movie more than anything else, is Sam Rockwell's bravura performance. The man is dynamite here. It's a role that could easily lead to scenery chewing, but he handles his one-man show with a great deal of skill. His acting never calls attention to itself, and the overall effect of his work is extremely impressive. Still, I felt that something fundamental was missing; something that kept it from becoming the sci-fi classic that by all means it deserves to be. But that's nitpicking, really. It's a very good film, admirably ambitious, and I'm just glad it found its way to us.

O (Tim Blake Nelson, 2001) 63
A competent, if not particularly outstanding, contemporary adaptation of Othello (which, to be honest, was never my favorite Shakespeare anyway). For all its flashy modern embellishments, it's actually pretty faithful to its source material. As with all Shakespeare adaptations, this is both a strong point and an undoing. On the one hand, you know you're going to get a solid story; on the other, especially if you're familiar with the play, there are no surprises. Aside from the high school basketball conceit, O doesn't go out of its way to do anything new or different with the Bard's plotline. As a result, as soon as the setting is established, the film feels like it goes on autopilot. Still, the performances are good (the core three especially; even the normally wooden Josh Hartnett stands out here) and one has to give Tim Blake Nelson kudos for trying. It's just that, especially with the potential inherent in each and every one of Shakespeare's "major" plays for a brilliant adaptation, it's hard to not want a little bit more out of it.

The Princess and the Warrior (Tom Tykwer, 2000) 45
Okay. I get it now. Tom Tykwer is all about flash and pizazz. This is why Run Lola Run worked so well: it was 100% style. It didn't even try for that whole "substance" thing. On the flipside, this is why Perfume didn't work: it actually tried to tell a story -- a fucking weird one -- and it fell on its face, fucking weirdly. The Princess and the Warrior, despite being Tykwer's immediate follow-up to Lola, unfortunately bears more similarity to the latter film. It ain't just dumb, it's flat-out silly. The story it tries to tell is so contrived and so ham-fisted and so poorly handled that I'm led to wonder what exactly appealed to Tykwer about it in the first place. Scarcely anything clicks here: the movie's way too long, it's frustratingly slow paced, and there's something about it that's just off-putting on a visceral level (not to mention having one of the stupidest endings I've seen in a long while; without giving anything away, it's like Tykwer felt the need to grab his audience by the throat and scream, "D'YA GET IT?! THE SYMBOLISM?! HUH? WELL, DO YA? IT'S A METAPHOR! GET IT?! D'YA SEE THE METAPHOR?!" Yes, Tom. We get it). Not unpredictably, the successful things are the stylistic touches. The film's really well shot. Like, really. It just forgets that these things cease to matter if the story sucks.

Public Enemies (Michael Mann, 2009) 41
You just can't predict some things. Of all the boring-as-shit movies out there, I never would've expected a Johnny Depp movie about John Dillinger to be one of them. Simply put: Public Enemies takes a loooong time to go absolutely nowhere. It's unbelievably dull. Mann's technical prowess is impressive enough and Depp's acting is good enough that together they make this a difficult film to hate outright, but damned if I'm not very unimpressed and disappointed. The sad thing is, the film's got a lot going for it. It really does. They just forgot one key element: a script; something that dictates that things happen, and interestingly. Because all of the gripping parts are in the trailer. That's two minutes long. Public Enemies is 140 minutes long. What fills (or doesn't fill, depending) the remaining 138 ain't really worth the $10 you'd have to pay for it.

The Rutles (Eric Idle & Gary Weis, 1978) 70
Not having watched this in years and years, I was concerned that my younger viewing self had played up this film's quality a bit too much and that I'd be slightly disappointed upon revisiting it. I shouldn't have worried. Eric Idle's unfortunately underrated Beatles sendup is still amusing after all these years, though definitely more sly and clever than straight-up hilarious (not that there's anything wrong with this at all; it's just slightly different from what I remembered). One good thing that comes with age: I actually get all the references now (I'm pretty sure the humor inherent in the Brian Epstein-inspired Leggy Mountbatten would have been lost on 12-year-old Chris; just a guess), and I'm able to recognize all of the curious guest cameos (like wtf that really is Mick Jagger/Paul Simon/George Harrison, as well as half the original SNL cast). So yeah. Good stuff. And short! You can watch this twice instead of watching Public Enemies once!

Shallow Grave (Danny Boyle, 1994) 66
A vicious, meanspirited little thriller. It works, though. You have to suspend a healthy amount of disbelief (without saying it's impossible or even implausible, I'm not entirely sure when the key event that leads to the conclusion could have happened), but once you let yourself go the film is entertaining enough to work on its own terms. It has a biting edge that may be just a little too dark for a lot of people, not to mention a cast of characters who are fundamentally despicable, but these things suit the material. The last thing a story like this calls for is a warm, cuddly treatment; Danny Boyle puts it on ice and lets it stay there. It's also an interesting historical curiosity: this was both the feature debut for the now Oscar-winning Boyle (it predates even his breakthrough Trainspotting by a couple of years), as well as one of the first screen appearances for Ewan McGregor. It's clear even from these humble beginnings that both men are quite talented, and it's fun to know where both ended up. Shallow Grave is quite a bit darker than anything I would've expected from such an early stage, but it's enjoyable nonetheless. Fun, you might even say, in the most macabre of senses.

This Is Spinal Tap (Rob Reiner, 1984) 84
Eh, everyone's seen this. We all know how good it is. I don't think I need to say anything about it.

I'll try to do this a couple more times before school starts, just to avoid pile-up and all that stuff. Later!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Haltime Report: 2009

I've said it a million times before, but it's worth repeating a million times more: 2009 is amazing. That's all there is to it. This is turning out to be a watershed year, especially in the wake of the very lackluster 2008 (with a few big exceptions, of course). I haven't seen enough movies to make any value judgments there, but quality of music is up by an unbelievable margin. Everyone is releasing stuff this year, and it's almost all really, really good. And the party's not over yet! Despite the influx of anticipated albums from January to June, we've still got several biggies to go.

Music Stuff We're Still Being Promised: AFI, Brand New, The Dodos, The Flaming Lips, Frightened Rabbit, Mew, Porcupine Tree, The Twilight Sad, Vampire Weekend. Honestly, this madness will never stop.

So, yeah. I'm pumped. There's as much awesome stuff to look forward to as there is to look back on.

Speaking of, let's do that. This is something of an annual tradition. Every year since 2005, I've been compiling a so-called Halftime Report to spotlight the very best in music and movies from the first half of the year. With the exception of songs (which get the full Top 10), I do half-size lists (seems appropriate, right?). It just feels better that way. So, without further ado ...

The Songs:
Yeesh, this was a hard list to make. I had to cut some really worthy songs, which made me feel bad (so if you see Franz's "No You Girls," or Other Lives' "E Minor," or even Doves' "Kingdom of Rust," give 'em a pat on the back for me, okay?), but here's as close as I could come at this point in time. Also, I adhere to the one-song-per-artist rule, or else this would be nothing but three bands over and over.

10. Telefon Tel Aviv, "The Birds"
If anyone knows of a song more elegantly beautiful released in the past six months, by all means indulge me. A positively enchanting slice of nocturnal electronica by a duo that met its end far too abruptly.

9. VNV Nation, "Where There Is Light"
This sort of encapsulates everything I like about these guys. Huge and epic-sounding, with a keen ear for melody and a passionate delivery. Time will tell if it's one of their best, but I think it might be.

8. Rinôçérôse, "Panic Attack"
Fun, unpretentious, bouncy electro-rock. It's catchy as hell, and one needs not feel bad about dancing around his or her bedroom to it. What more do you need?

7. The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, "Young Adult Friction"
I love finding new bands. No one had even heard of these guys prior to Pitchfork's drooling review in early February, but by now we're all intimately familiar with this: a pop song so warm, well constructed, and likable that it almost feels like it's been a staple on our personal soundtracks forever.

6. Metric, "Gold Guns Girls"
Though I appreciate their meditative stuff as well, this is what Metric does best: amped-up, energetic, impossible-not-to-dance-to synth-rock. The "more and more..." coda basically kills me with its awesomeness each time.

5. Sunset Rubdown, "Apollo and the Buffalo and Anna Anna Anna Oh!"
It's only because I made myself choose one. Anything else from the album might do just as well. Still, there is a certain something about this song that I can't deny, no matter how hard I try. Likely the most overtly melancholy thing Krug has ever written, and it's just great.

4. The Kingsbury Manx, "Well, Whatever"
The list's inevitable dark horse. Of the ten million indie pop songs getting tossed out there, who would've guessed this would be the one to really do it for me? Short, sweet, lovely.

3. Bat for Lashes, "Daniel"
"When the fires came the smell of cinders and rain perfumed almost everything: we laughed and laughed and laughed" is the most striking lyric so far this year, and -- regardless of how streamlined this is compared to the rest of Two Suns -- this is how indie dance-pop should be done.

2. Silversun Pickups, "Panic Switch"
Haters, begone. I don't care if they sound like another certain SP-initialed band, or if there's not an original bone in any one of the members' bodies. No matter how I look at it, I can't get past the fact that this is just a damn great rock song. The "waiting and fading and floating away" bridge is one of those sublime moments that reminds me just why I love music so much.

1. Pure Reason Revolution, "Deus Ex Machina"
A serious #1, and it won't be giving up that spot easily. A dark, aggressive, and uncannily literary excursion into almost EBM-ish industrial that sports melodies upon melodies, harmonies upon harmonies, and one brilliant idea after another for six intense, utterly danceable minutes.

The Albums:
Actually, it was significantly easier putting this list together. There have been tons of strong albums, but these five proudly stand above the rest.

5. Metric, Fantasies
The ostensible reason for this placement could be because I saw them play 8/10 of this in a mindblowing show that has to be seen to be believed, but I think the real reason is that it's just a damn fine pop record. Their best album.

4. The Decemberists, The Hazards of Love
I'll be the first to admit that I prefer the "melancholy indie-pop" Decemberists of not-so-old, but no one ever said going in a new direction was a bad thing. This is an admirably cohesive album, and what can I say? The crunchy, 70s-inspired hard rock sound looks good on them.

3. Silversun Pickups, Swoon
This is exactly the album I wanted them to release. There are a couple rough patches in the second half, but it gets placement on this list based on "Growing Old Is Getting Old" and "Panic Switch" alone.

2. Pure Reason Revolution, Amor Vincit Omnia
An exhilarating combination of prog-rock, industrial/electronica, and elements of metal with multi-part harmonies and complex arrangements. And what do they get for their ambition? A lukewarm reception and continued obscurity, because the world at large has decided it doesn't sound enough like their first album. Sigh.

1. Sunset Rubdown, Dragonslayer
By a landslide. By tightening his songwriting and widening his accessibility ever so slightly, Spencer Krug has made a record every bit as good as -- though fundamentally different from -- 2007's decade-defining Random Spirit Lover. So pretty much what I'm trying to say is, this album is really, really, really fucking excellent.

The Films:
For some reason, I haven't been to see as many movies this year. Who knows? I guess fewer have been grabbing my interest. Nonetheless, there's still some really good stuff out there waiting to be seen.

5. Up
At this point, I'm just leaving a space open on all of my lists for Pixar movies. They've earned it. Yeah, this is good; this is really good. But seriously, did any of us ever expect anything different?

4. Star Trek
Now, honestly. Did anyone expect this to be as good as it was? Really? The world at large, myself included, seemed to be preparing for a huge trainwreck -- an understandable sentiment. But what we got was thrilling mainstream cinema: a visually impressive, highly enjoyable reboot with great casting and a solid story. It even kinda sorta makes Star Trek cool again.

3. Duplicity
A complex, twisty little snake of a movie, but a fun one. It should be no surprise at this point that a film about con artists should naturally try to con its audience as well. This one succeeds. Oh: and Clive Owen is still the world's biggest badass.

2. Drag Me to Hell
This damn movie has no right to be as good as it is. No right. It's just a schlocky gross-out horror flick. But it's such a ridiculously well made, fun, and endlessly entertaining schlocky gross-out horror flick that I'm convinced Sam Raimi is some kind of warped genius. With all due respect to Spider-Man, it's good to have you back where you belong, Sam.

1. Sin Nombre
A devastating and deeply frightening film, but also a profound and beautiful one. For every moment of intense darkness, there's another that's equally hopeful. The result is a masterpiece: powerful, human, and damn near perfect.

And that's it! Only six months until I get to do this again! And yeah, I am going to attempt decade lists too. Holy crap.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Movie Roundup: 6/17/09

Slightly delayed, but better late than never! Same format as always: Titles as Such imply a first viewing, while Orange Titles mean I'd seen the film before. And so on.

Just because this entry wasn't already going to be obscenely long, here's:
The Scale
100-90: Blissful, orgasmic cinema. This is something extremely special.
89-80: An excellent, unmissable film. I probably own this (or will) and you should, too.
79-70: A very strong film well worth seeing.
69-60: This is good. It has some problems, but it's still an enjoyable piece of work.
59-50: The gray area. Certain things work about this, other things don't. It depends on mood and taste.
49-40: A mediocre or lackluster film. Not painful, but conspicuously flawed.
39-30: Plain bad. Don't go near this, please.
29-20: Incredibly terrible. Only worth a viewing if self-torture is desired.
19-0: Hooooo mama.

Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951) 85
It's a talented director who can make a movie so nasty that its sting hurts just as much almost 60 years later. Of course, Billy Wilder was one of the greatest directors who ever lived, but even the other greats of his time weren't making movies as dark and vicious as this. The reason it works so well is because it's so damn unrelenting: Wilder takes perfect aim at his target and skewers it. In hindsight, it's not hard to see why this was unavailable on DVD until 2007. It's just way too meanspirited for most casual viewers. Still, it's an important film and a great one, and by all means it should have been available sooner. I'd be hard-pressed to think of a more pitch-perfect media/journalism satire than this, and would certainly find it difficult to pinpoint one as unforgiving and as topical.

The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960) 83
One of my biggest movie credos is that a good film should never be watched just once. I saw The Apartment for the first time, I dunno, about a year ago. Its reputation builds it up to be a comedy, something which the re-teaming of Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon (fresh off Some Like It Hot) does nothing to dispel. So I was all geared up for a comedy. What I got was one hell of a depressing movie. It caught me completely off-guard. Sure, there were touches of much-needed humor to alleviate the darkness, but more often than not it was a bleak, cynical affair. My opinion of the film suffered as a result. As it turns out, the opportunity to go back and re-watch it with advance knowledge was exactly what was necessary for me to fall in love with it. Yes, everything I just said is still true, but what I failed to see before -- regardless of genre or tone -- is that it's a great film. All of its elements click into place flawlessly, and it emerges hugely satisfying. It's still a total downer, to be sure, but it's an extremely well-orchestrated downer. You have no idea how much that counts for.

Big Trouble in Little China (John Carpenter, 1986) 79
We've all seen Big Trouble in Little China, right? So I really don't need to discuss it in any sort of depth (as if such a thing were possible in the first place). It's just ... man, everything about this movie just makes me feel so damn happy to be alive: Kurt Russell's brilliantly awful one-liners and John Wayne impression, the floating eyeball and hairy beast, the neon escalators. It's one of the funnest movies of any kind ever made. I can't even imagine someone not getting into this. It's just so damn enjoyable.

Blowup (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966) 55
There's a saying, too clever for its own good, that goes, "If you remember the 60s, you weren't there." Well, I don't remember the 60s either, but I missed being around for them by about 20 years. Still, regardless of whether or not my memory might have escaped me, films like this make me wish I had been there. It just looks like so damn much fun. Really, all Blowup amounts to is two hours of entertaining, but completely ridiculous nonsense. I get the feeling it's a classic not in spite of this, but because of it. Really, there's nothing even bordering on meaningful here. Right as you think a plot is finally about to emerge, the protagonist drops it immediately and instead rolls around on the floor with some anonymous chicks. A random succession of events takes place. Things just happen. By the time the film reaches its final scene, wherein a group of car-crusin' mimes invade a tennis court and pretend to play a game, nothing has been accomplished or resolved or even introduced. Things have just happened. And dammit, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't captivating in its own demented way. It's a total hodgepodge, but it's such a peculiar and trippy hodgepodge that it's hard to actually say anything bad about it. Whatever the point may be, one thing's for sure: it's an Experience, and anyone who's interested should step right up.

Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985) 86
Terry Gilliam is extremely hit-or-miss. For every film of his I love (this, Holy Grail, 12 Monkeys), there's another I actively despise (Fear and Loathing, Brothers Grimm, Tideland). His problem is his habit for overindulgence. Far too often he throws restraint to the wind and lets his work carry him away, often resulting in a jumbled and unpleasant mess. Brazil remains his best work not because it isn't overindulgent (it is -- OH GOD, it is), but because some divine presence manages to make Gilliam's "throw everything at the screen, see what sticks" approach come across as brilliant and visionary instead of merely frustrating. There's so much going on here that it's easy (and in some cases recommendable) to ignore the story and just let the torrent of visuals and crazy ideas wash you away. Still, even the convoluted plot starts to make sense after a few viewings (for instance, I finally got that there's no connection whatsoever between Jill and Tuttle; Lowry just assumes there is, and in acting on this assumption becomes more of a so-called "enemy of the state" than either of them), and the film as a whole never stops being delightful. I can definitely see how this could be considered an acquired taste, and it certainly has the potential to put off people who aren't willing to grant it the patience it demands (which is quite a bit), but nothing's going to change my bottom-line that this is just a fantastic film.

The City of Lost Children (Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro, 1995) 79
Take what I said in my capsule for The Apartment about never watching good films only once, only substitute "weird" for "depressing." I watched The City of Lost Children once about three years ago, was taken aback by how beautiful its visuals were, and was left cold because it was just too damn weird for the mood I was in. Now I've come back to it. And having seen Jeunet and Caro's other collaboration, the equally bizarre and delightful (and maybe even slightly better) Delicatessen, I rewatched this fully prepared to embrace whatever strageness it might throw my way. Predictably, I found it to be quite excellent. I love being able to say things like "there's nothing else quite like it," and this much is obvious if you've ever seen the film. "Hallucinatory" and "surreal" don't even begin to describe the tripped-out otherworld created by this film, but this time it was a place I actually wanted to be. I became involved with the characters, was thrilled by how original the story was. It's still definitely not something for all tastes, but I'm glad I can finally say it's something for mine. I'm happy I finally listened to that voice in the back of my head telling me to give it another shot. It's awesome, and no fan of sci-fi or intriguing foreign films should go without seeing it.

Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009) 77
It's easy to get excited when a director manages to make a good film from an oft-abused formula. It really is. And this explains why Drag Me to Hell has gotten almost ridiculously hyperbolic reviews. All of us geeky film buffs are just happy to see a horror film that not only doesn't suck, but is actually rather excellent. Just don't let the 93% on RottenTomatoes usually reserved for Important Films trick you into believing it's something greater than what it is. Drag Me to Hell is a schlocky gross-out horror flick and nothing more. It just also happens to be a really fucking good one. I don't know what else to say about it, really. If you're a fan of the genre, you'll probably love it. If you're not, you probably won't. If you're like me and don't really swing one way or the other, you'll be pleasantly surprised by how clever, funny, icky, and sometimes flat-out exciting it can be. Bravo, Mr. Raimi. Bravo. You've just absolved yourself for Spider-Man 3.

The Experiment (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2001) 35
An extremely unpleasant film. I don't mean to imply it's unwatchable or it isn't well-made, but it's a hell of a chore to sit through. Look, I'm a psych student. I know about the Stanford Prison Experiment. I know about the procedure, the findings, how it very quickly got out of control, and so forth. I really don't need to sit through two torturous hours of a fictionalized, exaggerated version of the same set-up. This is especially true if it doesn't go anywhere. It just kind of haphazardly wallows in some of the darker pools of human depravity. It's unrelenting, grim, and predictable. The only way I can imagine deriving entertainment value out of this would be if the viewer is as sadistic as the film's sociopathic antagonist. And with the entertainment element factored out, the only way a film like this can get by is on message alone. When the credits finally rolled, I didn't feel enlightened. I didn't feel any grand revelation. I just felt sickened by the human condition. If that was the filmmakers' agenda (and, yeah, it probably was), then bravo, but I'd like them to know this much: I didn't have to watch their film to get that feeling. There are plenty of opportunities every day, and at least I'm off the couch for those.

Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977) 81
Lynch has gotta be the biggest love-him-or-hate-him affair in contemporary cinema. Those who love him (myself included) are guilty of a rabid, almost cultish following, while those who hate him will dismiss his work as pretentious bullshit without even the slightest hesitation. It's just the sort of material that provokes these kinds of reactions. Even though I'm enamored of what Lynch can accomplish, it's easy for me to see how he could seriously rub someone the wrong way. It was kind of fun in a perverse way watching Eraserhead (Lynch's first, and in some ways still his most challenging) for Movie Night and collecting responses: some admired it, some were bored to tears by it, some were terrified. None of these are unexpected. I love Eraserhead just because it's so unlike any other film in existence, but even I draw the line at saying I enjoy watching it. I doubt such a thing is possible. It merits appreciation, and from me it gets quite a lot of it. But it's still not the sort of thing I'd turn on just to kick back and watch something. There needs to be a purpose. Breaking it out for Movie Night to share with others was a good, strong purpose. Now I have no problem returning it to the shelf for a while.

Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960) 87
Oh man, this was exceptional. It's sort of my dream to stumble upon a lesser-known older film that is just as great as all of the world-famous classics of its era. Peeping Tom is such a film. It's not too much of a stretch to say that the reason why it's been shuffled under the rug all these years is because it was so ahead of its time. Released twenty, even ten, years later, this might've been seen as a masterpiece. Released in 1960, it was so reviled that it destroyed the career of its director. Why? Because it takes a troubling subject and fleshes it out so skillfully that it essentially removes the audience from its comfort zone whether they like it or not. It's hard to watch this and not get creeped out (the soft-spoken, understated, but chilling lead performance works wonders on this front). But at the same time, it's even harder to watch this and not get completely involved, which is of course the ironic point Powell is trying to make. Just as Mark enjoys watching what he has done, we're gripped with a similar fascination. Peeping Tom implicates its viewers. It makes them accomplices in what is happening onscreen. People back in 1960 did not like this at all, and there's a chance that it still might be seen as distasteful and ugly today. Me? I think it's absolutely brilliant, and likely one of the finest examples of psychological horror I have ever seen.

Pig Hunt (James Isaac, 2008) 63
The best thing that can be said about Pig Hunt is that it's a movie that understands itself. One does not go into a movie about a group of moronic city kids who go into the woods to hunt a two-ton pig expecting a profound story, or some life-altering revelation, or some shattering new take on modern cinema. No. One goes in expecting a big ol' dumbass horror flick with zero logic, campy dialogue, and tons of cheap humor. And the filmmakers get this. They have no pretensions. "Dumbass horror flick" is all Pig Hunt ever tries to be, and that's all Pig Hunt ever needs to be. And you know what? It's kind of awesome. Somehow the complete and utter absurdity of literally every damn thing in this movie does not bother me at all. It just works. It's incredibly entertaining, highly enjoyable, and actually very funny (sometimes even when it tries to be). Honestly, I could not have asked for more.

Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) 78
One of the all-time great movie comedies. I really don't have too much to say about this one, other than it holds up really well. I've seen this about six or seven times now and it's still consistently hilarious. It's not perfect: some of the jokes do fall flat, and others likewise wear thin with time, but this is the case with pretty much every comedy. Wilder knew what he was doing and he did it very, very well. And hats off to him to tackling such an edgy subject in an era when such things were most definitely not smiled upon.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring (Kim Ki-Duk, 2003) 80
Gorgeous. Breathtakingly gorgeous. Really, I can throw these words around, but you won't know until you see it. This, quite simply, has some of the most tremendous cinematography I've ever seen. Every single frame from this film is a composition that I wouldn't mind (and in fact, would like) hanging on my wall. Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-Duk, the man behind the also-great 3-Iron and Time, is responsible for some of the most poignant and haunting films to come out of Asia this decade. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring, in addition to its stunning beauty, holds true to both of these qualities, and emerges as its director's best work (from what I've seen, at least). Its relatively dialogue-free story is quite simple, but very emotionally resonant. Though owing hugely to the Buddhist faith (something I admittedly know little about), there's a universality about the proceedings that makes its themes of sin and redemption really hit home. The story coupled with the visuals make for an awe-inspiring, immersive experience. This is what cinema can accomplish as a visual medium. This is what I call actually "seeing" a movie. So do yourself the favor of tracking it down. Even if the story doesn't grab you (it's deliberately paced, to say the least), I find it hard to believe anyone could be disappointed with the images Ki-Duk has managed to capture on film.

Up (Pete Docter, 2009) 72
I'll start by saying what everyone else starts by saying: holy shit, Pixar is amazing. I mean, they've gotta have the most sterling track record of any production company in film history by now. But let's not get too overexcited and start calling Up their best film ever, as some have (Ratatouille? WALL-E? Finding Nemo?). It's an excellent achievement, to be sure, and it comes highly recommended from yours truly; I just don't think it stands up to the creme de la creme of Pixar's output. Which isn't to say there's not some fantastic stuff here: for better or for worse, the film's best moments come during its first few minutes. So beautiful and emotional is the (mostly dialogue-free) prologue that the rest of the movie can't quite stand up to it (if it had, then yes: masterpiece. But sadly ...), but it certainly puts out a fighting effort nonetheless. The finished product is yet another film destined to win countless fans for generations to come: a great, funny, cute story that is entertaining for all ages and actually comes with a well thought-out emotional valence as well. In other words, yeah. It's just what Pixar does.

Oh look, we're at the end. Finally. Off to hit the couch and refill the viewing log. Later.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Movie Roundup: 5/26/09

I told you it wouldn't be long. It's amazing how fast you get used to just sitting around all day not doing anything. Or rather, how "watching a movie" suddenly becomes "actually doing something," where before it was "not doing anything -- just watching a movie." Oh, summer. Anyway, a whole bunch of stuff I hadn't seen before this time around, most of it quite good (and one that is among the worst movies I have ever seen). Let's do this.

Also, just because I haven't posted it in a few months (and to dispel any ideas that a 57 somehow equates to an F), here's ...

The Scale
100-90: Blissful, orgasmic cinema. This is something extremely special.
89-80: An excellent, unmissable film. I probably own this (or will) and you should, too.
79-70: A very strong film well worth seeing.
69-60: This is good. It has some problems, but it's still an enjoyable piece of work.
59-50: The gray area. Certain things work about this, other things don't. It depends on mood and taste.
49-40: A mediocre or lackluster film. Not painful, but conspicuously flawed.
39-30: Plain bad. Don't go near this, please.
29-20: Incredibly terrible. Only worth a viewing if self-torture is desired.
19-0: Hooooo mama.

The Big Sleep (Howard Hawks, 1946) 68
Tell me if this doesn't sound like a recipe for success: the biggest movie star of all-time and his wife (Bogart and Bacall) in front of the camera, one of the best directors of the so-called "Hollywood era" (Hawks) behind it, working off a screenplay penned by one of the finest writers who ever lived (Faulkner), which was adapted from a novel by arguably the finest mystery novelist of his time (Chandler). By all accounts, the movie should be tremendous. It's become a huge classic, naturally, but is the movie as great as all that? Well, er, as much as it kills me to say it, not really. Let me explain: the film is notorious for having a convoluted plot. At one point during production, Bogart showed up on-set and asked who was responsible for one of the murders; neither Hawks nor Faulkner knew, so they called up Raymond Chandler, who admitted he had no clue either. In other words, the plot isn't just convoluted, it's damn near impenetrable. You can make sense out of it if you're patient enough and want to, but I can't imagine it'd be a very rewarding quest. So this is a ridiculously confusing film, and despite its many huge strengths, I have a hard time forgiving it for this (especially when so many other 40s noirs actually clear up their twisty plotlines). Still, it's a classic for a reason: Bogart and Bacall are wonderful, and they deliver that oh so deliciously crunchy noir dialogue like they were born with the script in their hands. They're excellent enough to make the whole thing work. Their off-screen chemistry becomes tangible onscreen, and they make for an endlessly beguiling couple. The rest you can throw out. Despite bazillions of characters with unclear motives doing all kinds of crazy things, the film is really all about its two stars. Watch it for them. If you glean anything else from the film, well, good for you. It's a fringe benefit to watching two of the greats doing what they do best.

The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) 77
A very, very sad movie. It's not at all what I expected: from the DVD case and, indeed, from the film's reputation, I was anticipating a highly-charged political thriller about surveillance and bugging. What I got, however, was a meditative, deliberately-paced character study about a very lonely man consumed with guilt about the immorality of his profession. Frankly, it's a better movie for it. In a performance that can only be described as stunning, Gene Hackman basically sells the film: Harry Caul is a complex, aching, utterly believable individual; the emotional valence of the entire story rests on his shoulders, and Hackman knocks it out of the park. Coppola's script is entirely in tune with Hackman's strengths, too: instead of placing the character in the middle of a dangerous situation like most other films would, it sets things up so that Harry Caul is the conflict. His psychology, not the titular conversation, is the main focus, and we delve so deeply into it that, by the film's excellent final minutes, we're not entirely sure what's real and what's fictional, what's fact and what's paranoia. It's a clever little setup, and in many ways it makes the proceedings even more tense. In a society driven by spying and surveillance, who can you trust? Can you even trust yourself? And even if you're just an impartial third party, are you still responsible for the ramifications of the information you're collecting? Coppola forces his audience to consider some very difficult questions, but -- like any skilled storyteller -- stops just short of answering them. Instead, he offers a quietly harrowing portrait of a man who is likewise unable to find these answers, and how it slowly but surely destroys him. Powerful stuff.

Crows Zero (Takashi Miike, 2007) 62
An electrifying, if sometimes muddled, adrenaline-shot of nihilism. There's something about the simplicity of this story that just appeals to some sort of masculine ideal. Quite simply, this is a film about no-holds-barred physical dominance that seems to take place in some stylish alternate universe where literally the only conflict is which high school punk can kick the most ass and take the most names. As such, it's basically just two hours of tough guys beating the shit out of each other in the hopes that they will become the ultimate badass. And it works. It's exhilarating. It's when the film tries to complicate matters with useless subplots (in no way is the brain aneurysm thing necessary at all) that it starts to lose its edge, sometimes feeling like a couple unrelated movies cobbled together (and unfortunately this happens a bit too much in the last 45 minutes or so). On the whole, though, it's a success: anyone with a passing familiarity with Japanese cinema knows that Miike is a dude who knows what he's doing, and the film exudes style and badass. Despite its almost nonstop violence, it's not hard to watch. It crackles on a special kind of energy that holds its thrills at a satisfying level throughout. And really, you've gotta admire a movie ballsy enough to deliver a moral, then turn right around and say, "But fuck it, let's rock."

The Edukators (Hans Weingartner, 2004) 78
A whole lot smarter than I would've given it credit for, and consequently a whole lot better. The problem with social commentary is its propensity to glorify one side of an argument while demonizing the other, but while The Edukators clearly allies with its trio of protagonists, it also does a very good job of humanizing the opposition. This is important, because despite having an interesting and creative storyline (a couple of young activists break into rich people's homes, but instead of stealing anything, they just rearrange furniture and leave cryptic notes as wake-up calls), this is very much a dialogue-driven film. Many of its most lucid, perceptive moments come during the scenes where the characters just sit around and talk to one another. Some might be tempted to call this verbose and preachy, but I found it fascinating. It delves maturely and honestly into socioeconomic topics that, frankly, are very rarely handled with such care, all the while developing a cast of characters I actually cared about (even Hardenberg, who is probably the most well-defined of the bunch). There are a few shortcomings here and there, but for the most part this is an excellent film. It's deliberately paced, but never boring, with an intriguing idea and a payoff that I found very satisfying. No, really: the final shot -- a simple note pinned to a wall -- is one that will stick with you for a while. I promise.

Imprint (Takashi Miike, 2006) 17
There is a fine line between scary and disgusting. Imprint is disgusting, in every sense of the word. While you're at it, add pointless, ludicrous, and hateful to that list. Miike is a talented filmmaker; I can only wonder what he could have possibly been getting at by making this. Originally intended for Showtime's "Masters of Horror" series, Miike's delightful 63-minute romp was banned from cable broadcast because it's, ya know, fucking disgusting and has no cinematic merit whatsoever. Any skill at all that went into the making of this (and there's unfortunately lots of evidence that some very good people worked on it; Miike's direction, for one, is in top form) is immediately nullified by how extremely unpleasant the damn thing is to sit through. I can't even see how this would entertain someone: it's got a graphic torture scene that rivals the infinitely better Audition (even though I still wasn't a fan) at its most sadistic, a meanspirited tone that is offputting in ways I find hard to describe, and a twist ending that amounts to the biggest "WHAT?!" I've had in a very, very, very long time. So, yeah. Even if you're like me and are currently on a Miike kick, do yourself a huge favor and actively avoid this. It's fucking terrible. See Ichi the Killer instead. Or Sukiyaki Western Django. Or even the above-reviewed Crows Zero. They may be just as bloody, but they all have something Imprint sorely lacks: anything whatsoever to justify its existence.

Layer Cake (Matthew Vaughn, 2004) 44
My credo with films like this: the resolution has to be satisfying enough to justify the heavy lifting it makes you do in order to get there. The thing with Layer Cake is, I didn't just dislike the ending. I actively hated it. The ending is so bad that it takes an okayish, if incredibly twisty and convoluted, drug/gangster movie and turns it completely against itself. To go into detail would be to divulge some pretty huge spoilers, so I'll avoid it as best I can, but let it be said that the final moments of this film are so pointless and misguided that it undermines everything that's come before it. "I went through that, and this is what the film gives me?" It's infuriating. This is not an "easy" film: there's a small army of characters, each taking part in a myriad of crisscrossing plotlines that often become difficult to keep up with. You have to pay close attention. Luckily, I was told before seeing this that scrutiny was necessary. So I watched it attentively, traced its coiling story back until it made sense, and tried to follow the best I could. And in general I appreciate a film that makes me do this: it keeps me on my feet, keeps me interested. And, to be honest, Layer Cake handles itself fairly well. You spend the entire movie feeling like it could turn out to be a decent, if minor, triumph. But then it flips you the bird, spits in your face, and goes on its merry way. And I have to wonder why. What good could the filmmakers possibly have seen in this conclusion? In essence, the film does the same thing to itself that it does to its protagonist: screws over something perfectly acceptable, and emerges irreparably damaged because of it. Huh.

Se7en (David Fincher, 1995) 96
It's a testament to Fincher's craft that I still feel an overwhelming sense of dread while watching the scenes leading up to the conclusion, despite being all too aware of what happens. I don't know how many times I've seen this, but it always unfailingly puts me on edge. Maybe it isn't "scary" in a typical horror sense, but it's unshakably disturbing in ways very few other films have ever managed to be. At least for me. Se7en is a film that crawls under my skin and stays there. It doesn't need to rely on cheap JUMP! moments or (east) buckets of blood: it instead gets by on creating one of the most oppressively gloomy atmospheres I can recall in film, racheting up the tension little by little, and delivering a gut-punch mostly unparalleled in mainstream film. Call it what you will; I think it's incredibly brilliant.

Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009) 74
Well, holy crap. They did it right. I'll admit straight out that I'm not a Star Trek fan at all, but it's nonetheless in my blood and that makes me feel a certain amount of reverence. However, this movie manages to do something unthinkable and kind of miraculous: completely lift the nerd stigma that's plagued the franchise for decades while still being faithful to its roots and its characters. I don't know about you, but I liked the cast a lot: Chris Pine is an excellent Kirk, proving once and for all he's not just a Shatner look-alike; Zachary Quinto and John Cho are very good as Spock and Sulu, respectively; and no better actor in the world could've been chosen for Scotty than Simon Pegg. So it's an endearing ensemble. Also, perhaps a bit more expectedly, the movie's gorgeous: the budget went into the CGI, and it shows. Beautiful spacescapes and explosions take up a large portion of the film, and it's hard to take your eyes off of them. Most importantly, though, it's fun. It's incredibly solid popcorn escapism that's equally capable of entertaining, impressing, and surprising. And I bet the biggest surprise of all is that no one saw that coming. So yeah: it's awesome. Even if you do have to put up with Anton Yelchin's awful fake Russian accent.

Terminator Salvation (McG, 2009) 59
It's a perfectly acceptable action flick. There's nothing especially great about it, but there's nothing especially terrible either. It's just an action flick. If you want to see kinetic fight scenes, things blowing up, and fast-paced car chases without any other pretenses, look no further. I guess I'm just kind of spoiled by the James Cameron films: Terminator 2 is among the best sci-fi/action movies ever made, and while it's ridiculous to expect Terminator Salvation to even come close to that film's greatness, it's still all too obvious what can be accomplished with these characters and this story if one tries hard enough. Still, it misses by a long shot being the trainwreck that T3 was, and -- like I said -- it's got some cool explosions and CGI stuff. Plus, part of it was filmed right across the street from my house. This doesn't change how good the film is, of course, but it kinda makes me like it just a little bit more. I'm shallow like that.

All right, I'm off to return these and get a new stack. Rinse, repeat. 'Til next time!