Sunday, April 5, 2009

Movie Roundup: 4/5/09

Looking back to see when I posted my last Movie Roundup, I am frankly astonished that it has been over a month. See, I try to do these by blocks of ten or so films instead of following any particular timetable. I guess March was an especially light month, viewing-wise, but it was also a very busy month in lots of other ways, so I suppose all is forgiven. I am back. The Movie Roundup has returned, and the post is slightly longer than usual this time just to compensate for the delay.

Up, up, and away.

Adaptation. (Spike Jonze, 2002) 88
There is a novel by Italo Calvino called If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, wherein the reader almost immediately becomes aware that he or she is is the main character and that the book is, in fact, about a person attempting to read a novel by Italo Calvino called If On a Winter's Night a Traveler. Adaptation, the second of two (and hopefully not the last) brilliant Spike Jonze/Charlie Kaufman collaborations, plays with similar ideas of reality: it is fundamentally a movie about a screenplay that the viewer quickly discerns is the screenplay of the film they are watching. And despite the fictional (or at least semi-fictional -- I hope the guy isn't this neurotic in real life) Nicolas Cage-Kaufman's insecurities about writing something structurally solid and satisfying, there is literally not a single level that this film does not work perfectly on. It's one of the most airtight scripts I can think of, to the extent that it becomes a functional self-contained universe that keeps feeding into itself over and over (something which it's only too conscious of, see: Ouroboros). It's everything a movie ought to be, despite ultimately being nothing that Cage-Kaufman initially wants it to be ("I don't want to make it into some Hollywood thing"). It's a meditation on desire and hope and frustration, it's a biting satire of Hollywood, it's a super stylish exercise in cinematography and direction, it's a showcase for fine acting (Cage, Streep, and Cooper -- who won an Oscar for his role -- are all extraordinary), and -- yes -- it has one hell of a brilliant, original, thought-provoking screenplay. In other words, yeah, it's ridiculously good.

Casshern (Kazuaki Kiriya, 2004) 27
Apparently Kazuaki Kiriya has never heard of visual excess. It's important for a film to have a well defined visual style; necessary, one might even say. Like all components in filmmaking, though, there is a limit, and at that limit exists a line that should not be crossed. Casshern nonchalantly ignores that line early on and spends the next 117 dreary minutes becoming one of the most tedious, overdirected pieces of crap I have seen in a good long while. It's about time, too; rewatching all these favorites, I was starting to fall under some delusion of universal goodness. And of course it's not enough that Kiriya's D-grade video-game-on-acid aesthetic is so damn pervasive that it's impossible to tell what the hell is going on: no, we need an equally impenetrable story about war and genetic mutants to really seal the deal. The unfortunate thing is, there are some good ideas here. In the right hands, I have no doubt this could be a compelling sci-fi story. But Kiriya clearly has no damn clue how to handle any of this, and the result is a preachy, pretentious mess. I really wish I had not been born with the compulsion to follow movies out to their bitter end, because I would have loved to turn this off: by the end of the first hour, I was bored out of my mind; by 90 minutes, I was paying more attention to the timer on my DVD player than I was to the film; by two hours, I was just praying for quick and painless death. There are bad films, and then there are bad films. This fits comfortably into the latter category. Even in the realm of terrible films, though, you have to watch out for your blurbs. Maybe, as the case says, it is "better than both Matrix sequels put together." That still doesn't mean it's any good at all.

Duplicity (Tony Gilroy, 2009) 75
About a year and a half ago, Tony Gilroy -- in his then-directorial debut -- brought us a deliciously complex and twisty little thriller called Michael Clayton, which even in a bumper-crop year like 2007 was one of the best films around. If anything, his follow-up Duplicity ably demonstrates that the strengths of his previous effort were no fluke. This is, much like the Clooney vehicle, a structurally unusual but deadly intelligent film that is at once remarkably well written and possesses the power to keep its audience guessing up until the very end. We're still deeply enmeshed in the corporate world, although this time Gilroy treats the affair more like an extended Spy vs. Spy, thus making the goings-on even more playful and enjoyable. So yeah, clearly I liked the film a lot. I understand how the timeline and the barrage of plot twists/unexpected developments could become wearying for some, but I was able to adjust to Gilroy's speed without too much difficulty, and as a result I had a lot of fun. The interplay between his hero and heroine works really well, the central "secret" is just ludicrous enough to lend it some warped sense of credibility (an important aspect of the story, it turns out), and the pieces just seem to fit together into something both satisfying and clever. The year is young, so it's hard to tell how this will fare in the long run, but for right now one thing's for sure: in the typical spring doldrums, Duplicity is a welcome reprieve. That, and Clive Owen is infinitely more badass than George Clooney. Just sayin'.

Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2001) 58
I did the appropriate backtracking. The one and only time I saw this, I was in 9th grade. So that's, like, 2003-2004 territory. Much has changed in the last five-to-six years. More, really, than my little freshman self could ever have comprehended. When I saw Ghost World then, I loved it; its bratty, anti-establishment snarkiness struck a note with the rebellious adolescent. Now, though, actually being in the post-high school position held by Enid and Rebecca, I found this kind of difficult to sit through. Its derisive sarcasm has, for the most part, ceased to be endearing; instead, its portrayal of directionlessness and alienation hits a little too close to home for me to be able to fully embrace it like I once did. Does this mean it's a bad film? No. It just means it's not a terribly pleasant one. Terry Zwigoff's world is uniformly pessimistic: despite the characters' efforts, nobody really wins, and malaise is more or less a constant in life. Maybe that's true, but in a film designed to make us laugh, it's not a message that goes down easily. Still, there are some good things: Steve Buscemi is always welcome in any film, and the presence of a pre-glamorized-to-death Scarlett Johansson occasionally makes the screen a little easier to look at. Maybe in another five-to-six years I'll be able to return to this and find greatness in it again. I certainly hope so. For right now, though, Chris The Ennui-Stricken College Student does not need to be reminded of these all-too-obvious aspects of his life.

Ichi the Killer (Takashi Miike, 2001) 67 [edited US version] / 72 [int'l version]
I'm still not entirely sure why I like this film so much. I mean, really. It's psychosexually perverse, graphically violent for no reason other than it can be, and lacking any especially strong storyline that might somehow justify the first two. By all accounts, I should not like it; in most cases, I wouldn't. But I do. A lot. So I return to my original assumption that Miike is somehow tapping into a subconscious, ideological impulse that -- by all accounts -- is probably better left alone. God knows, if I explored further, what I might find out about myself. And yet, as potentially objectionable as some of the film's content might be, I paradoxically find myself incensed that an edited version exists. The first time I saw this, I rented the original, uncut version; the second time, with friends, we picked up the "heavily cut" one. From memory, it seems to omit most of the really grotesque stuff (for instance, pouring boiling water on the guy who gets hung by the hooks) and even a couple fairly important nonviolent scenes. Not unexpectedly, the movie becomes noticeably inferior. Not by any significant amount or anything -- I mean, the gist is still there -- but even so, what's the point? In a movie that thrives on its nasty details, what purpose could it serve to cut anything out? It hardly becomes a squeaky-clean, family-friendly romp as a result. So just leave it alone. It was fine before. Too fine, actually. I'm still bothered by how fine it was. I'm going to go off and wrestle with this one some more. Or maybe watch something else to put it out of my mind. You talk amongst yourselves.

The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) 85
I don't actually have too much to say about this one at the moment; I think the film, still immensely topical in 2009 despite its subtle yet highly symbolic (and historically accurate) choice to set itself in 1984, can largely speak for itself. It's an emotionally complex but narratively straightforward account of the Stasi's iron-fisted rule over East Germany, although taken down to a personal level that makes it both absorbing and effective. Though Dreyman and his girlfriend are the ones being spied on, the film's real rewards come from Captain Wiesler, whose gradual transformation makes up the film's backbone and gives it its powerful emotional center. While some may argue that the sudden series of flash-fowards at the end is tiresome, I'd contend that the film finds just about the perfect bittersweet note to end on. Overall, it's a fine example of how a film can get by on character and story alone. Despite a conspicuous lack of car chases, explosions, and special effects, it nonetheless manages to be more captivating, suspenseful, and rewarding by far than most movies that would gladly rely on them. That, my friends, is significant.

Man Bites Dog (Remy Belvaux/Andre Bonzel/Benoit Poelvoorde, 1992) 60
Here is a perfect example of why a film should not feel it is necessary to conform to a certain length: at around 60 minutes, Man Bites Dog would have been a brilliant achievement; at around 90, it loses its film grip and begins to grow tiresome. The central idea is an ingenious one: filmed in black and white on handheld cameras, it's a mockumentary of a film crew following the perfect subject: a serial killer. He is charming, charismatic, funny, and also extremely dangerous. The film strikes a brilliant chord in its first act by juxtaposing calm, collected scenes of pitch-black gallows humor with acts of shocking violence. As the crew continues to follow him around, they find themselves becoming more and more involved in his ghastly crimes until they ultimately become his effective henchmen. Like I said, this works amazingly for about an hour: there's one tremendous scene after another (the suburban house sequence is particularly potent), and it feels like the film is winding up for a knockout punch. Unfortunately, the filmmakers don't have an especially strong sense of how to end this, and the film's last third becomes a series of dead-ends that almost threaten to undo the whole affair (are the hospital or jail scenes necessary at all?). Still, shooting yourself in the foot doesn't mean the bullet was always there, and one still walks away from Man Bites Dog with a handful of compelling material. While I do feel that Michael Haneke does the whole media/audience-desensitized-to-violence thing much more effectively with Funny Games, these guys have still come up with a compelling prototype. With a few kinks ironed out, I know I'd be in love with it; as it is, it gets some strong admiration without fully getting a vote of confidence. That's just the way of these things sometimes.

Mysterious Skin (Gregg Araki, 2004) 91
In a market saturated with formula vehicles and cookie-cutter retreads, I appreciate a film that is willing to take risks. Mysterious Skin is a film that takes a handful of really big ones and, for the most part, succeeds with every last one of them. It is an unflinching look at an extremely difficult subject; it does not candy-coat anything and it refuses to shy away from even the most troubling details (neither of which it should do; subtlety is not the way to handle this sort of material). And while unbelievably devastating, one cannot accuse it of being emotionally manipulative. It delivers its soul-shattering gut-punch not because the director has stacked the cards in favor of its incredibly powerful final scene, but because the story is so naturally trenchant and yet so honestly handled that it just ends up there. It earns that final scene. And if that isn't reason enough why this is a tremendous piece of work, here's another: Joseph Gordon-Levitt (still best known for "Third Rock from the Sun," despite having been in some really great films since then) gives a beyond-excellent performance as Neil, the film's protagonist. On the surface he comes across as nothing less than a heartless asshole, but Gordon-Levitt nails the nuances of the character so well that it's impossible to miss the deep-rooted suffering behind his hardened facade. It's wonderful work. But really, I want to shake hands with everyone involved in this. It's by no means an easy film, but it's a necessary and important one. It explores areas of the human condition that few would ever dare to touch. That it does so with such honesty and such overwhelming force makes it one of the finer cinematic achievements of recent years. (I suppose I do see the unfairness of simply describing it as "a film about child abuse," as I did with the movie night crowd, as it does go a hell of a lot deeper -- and darker -- than that. But my question to those folks would be, now that you've seen it, wouldn't you be disappointed if it hadn't? I know I would.)

Oldboy (Chan-Wook Park, 2005) 87
The first time I watched Oldboy was in context with the rest of Chan-Wook Park's "vengeance trilogy" (of which this is the finest entry by a long shot), which necessarily means that a lot of thematic and tonal similarities between the films were going to be taken for granted. A few weeks ago, upon rewatching this in isolation from its counterparts, it finally dawned on me just how grim this film truly is. In a viewing marathon filled to the brim with blood and revenge and mean-spirited violence, the impact of these sorts of things -- for better or for worse -- ends up going by the wayside. And while my first viewing of the film at the end of last semester certainly knocked the wind out of me, it was only this time that I was able to fully appreciate the twisted humanity it puts on display. And it's just twisted enough that I could easily imagine lots of people getting seriously turned off. But where the film might lose some people is exactly where I latch on. As with Mysterious Skin, I have a certain natural fondness for films that step outside of a well-defined comfort zone and tap into dark, almost unspeakable recesses of the human mind. The plot developments in Oldboy very quickly drift away from the expected "hard-edged badass" (of which there is plenty, of course, although most of it is in the film's first half) into much more unexpected, disturbing territory. But that's what makes this so special and keeps it from becoming "just another revenge flick" (that and the fact that it's a technical tour de force, but that's a topic for another day). The motivation, no matter how sick and depraved, has an unnerving verisimilitude; sometimes, in the real world, having a villian who's just a crazy, fucked-up son of a bitch is adequate enough for this kind of shit to go down. It's a trying film, to be sure, but never at the expense of entertainment or pathos. It takes you to dark places and shows you unpleasant things, but it's not so unkind as to deny you payback for your emotional investment. Again: this is excellent.

Party 7 (Katsuhito Ishii, 2000) 21
More fool me for thinking Casshern was going to be the worst film in this entry. Somehow, against all laws of nature and dictates of good taste, Party 7 manages the trick of not only being worse, but being significantly so. Things like this are to blame for Japanese culture unfairly getting stereotyped as a cracked-out hodgepodge of absurdist nonsense. Party 7 tries so hard to be quirky and unusual and goofy and funny and unique that it just ends up downright painful. I honestly can't think of another word for it. Usually I can adjust my inner tempo to self-conscious weirdness, no matter how forced, but this just gives me nothing whatsoever to grab onto. It's really more like two entirely separate films haphazardly glued together: the first is a dull "I stole money and I'm running away from gangsters" story with lifeless characters and no development; the second is one of the most appallingly weird things I have ever seen onscreen, and no, I do not mean that as a compliment (an aging peeping tom named Captain Banana, whose attire is a spacesuit and frog helmet, tries to get a twentysomething boy to put on a yellow jumpsuit in order to embrace his "inner peep" or some shit). These two continue alongside each other with no particular rhyme, reason, or sense of pacing, until the pointlessly over-the-top denouement inevitably brings them together and accomplishes nothing whatsoever. Surprised? Yeah, I wasn't either. Really, if I hadn't rented the damn thing, I probably would've burned it or something. But they'd fine me for that, and it wouldn't be worth it. I just want this movie out of my life forever. I'll start by finishing this review.

Scotland, Pa. (Billy Morrissette, 2001) 69
How's this for a hook: "1970s fast-food version of Macbeth with Christopher Walken as a vegetarian Macduff." If you're anything like me, this will have not only immediately migrated to the top of your must-see list, but you'll actually already be halfway to the video store (or Netflix queue, as the case may be). The good news is that it delivers on that promise, at least insofar as its conceit will allow. In the grand scheme of Macbeth adaptations, I'd say this is somewhere in between Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (a classic, of course) and that post-apocalyptic Mad Max-style version my 10th grade English teacher showed us (which is incredibly bizarre and I still have no idea where she found it, because I can't). Morrissette manages something that, truthfully, has been tried a bazillion times and many fail at: being decently faithful to the Bard while still putting a clever, entertaining spin on one of his stories. By all accounts, Scotland, Pa. could have gone off the rails at any time; it never does, though, and as a result it becomes something of a small delight to watch. It's dryly funny in the only way that's appropriate for this sort of thing, and of course Christopher Walken is always fun to watch ("You've really done a lot with the place. Of course, the last time I was here there was a dead body in the fryilator!" has just entered the Movie Quote Hall of Fame). Familiarity with Shakespeare's play isn't necessary, of course, but I imagine it's somewhat more fun if you are. Nonetheless, I find it hard to believe most people wouldn't be greatly entertained by this. It's a hoot.

Sukiyaki Western Django (Takashi Miike, 2007) 68
I must admit, half the fun of seeing this again was being with people who had not watched it yet. Let's face it: this is really the sort of movie you watch once, are amused by, and then move on with your life. There's nothing deep here, no hidden details or worldly food for thought that would require multiple viewings. It's supposed to be a self-conscious, ridiculous, wildly over-the top homage to everything, an endeavor it more or less succeeds at. But seeing it with people who don't quite know what to expect is a treat in and of itself: Sukiyaki Western Django is a movie that is so patently absurd that literally anything can happen at any moment, and gauging reactions can sometimes be as much fun as the lunacy that's transpiring onscreen. Does it hold up as a film? Yeah, sure. Like I said before, it does what it sets out to do. If you're making up your own rules it's hard to break any of them, and if one thing can be said about the film, it's that there's nothing else quite like it in the world. Maybe it's not an especially great film, but it's a fun one that I'd really have no trouble recommending. That alone puts it way ahead of a lot of other films, and those don't even have a heavily made-up Quentin Tarantino in a steam-powered wheelchair.

Versus (Ryƻhei Kitamura, 2000) 59
I don't think words can accurately describe how ridiculous this film is. Is there anything this film doesn't have? It's a gun-wielding gangster samurai zombie movie set in a supernatural forest with immortals and reincarnated souls. Or something. Not that it matters. As fun as all this craziness is, though, the one thing I can't quite forgive it for is the small little flaw of making absolutely no goddamn sense whatsoever. I realize this isn't really the point, and that you're just supposed to watch it so you can see crazy shit happen and awesome fights and so forth, but think about how much better it would be if it had a story! It'd really be something! Oh well. I guess you can't have everything, and what the film does give is suitably badass if one is in the mood for this sort of thing. I can't deny that I was alternately amused and entertained for the film's entire duration (+20 WTF points for the scene where the crazy-haired guy just randomly hovers down from the sky), but at the end it still felt like there should have been more. Not that I wouldn't still recommend it to people. I probably would. It's that sort of thing. Hell, I'd even see it again. It's just ... what the fuck, just go watch it.

Waltz With Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008) 53
In general, if I dislike a film I'm inclined to lay the blame on the filmmaker a long time before I even think of indicting myself (and I'm sure 99.9% of all moviegoers share this sentiment). Waltz With Bashir is an interesting film in many ways, not the least of which is that it turns my previous statement upon itself. No, I did not like it, but for once I feel like I'm the responsible party and that the good-intentioned Ari Folman really had nothing to do with it. I think my lukewarm reaction stems from my inability to form any sort of emotional attachment to what was happening onscreen. War is never easy and maybe I've just become desensitized to it, because the images here are undeniably potent without ever actually striking a chord or plucking a heartstring. They're just ... there. I feel like I should be profoundly moved by the film's final few minutes, which jarringly switch away from a gorgeous dreamlike animation very reminiscent of Linklater's Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly to present live-action images of crying women wandering the streets of a crumbling city, but I just wasn't. Instead of seeming like a poignant concluding note, it felt anticlimactic. We never got to the bottom of Folman's eerie dream sequence, nor did we ever have a chance to warm up to any of the individuals he interviewed for his quasi-documentary. But am I missing the boat in expecting these things? Did I just not go into the film in the right mindset? I don't know. I wish I did, because it feels like it could be a really great film. Instead, I can't really regard it as anything more than an underdeveloped, if visually stunning and incredibly humanistic, curiosity.

Watchmen (Zack Snyder, 2009) FV: 64 / SV: 70
I think I may be just about the only teenage/college-age male in the known universe who did not enjoy Zack Snyder's previous effort, the dull and pointless CGI splatterfest 300; likewise, I have a special distate for both the Wachowski brothers' grim and misguided take on V for Vendetta (another unpopular stance, I gather) and the ludicriously awful Sean Connery vehicle The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (which I pray to god everyone hates). With both an unsureness of Snyder and a past history of seriously not-good Alan Moore adaptations, I naturally approached the film version of "graphic novel to beat all graphic novels" Watchmen with some trepidation. Imagine my relief when, after having watched it, it dawned on me that it not only didn't suck, but it was actually pretty okay. I wasn't head-over-heels in love with it, but that was all right. Contented, I spent a couple weeks being sure that "pretty okay" was more or less going to be my final verdict. As it turns out, much to my increased delight, this was not the case: a trip to Denver brought about a viewing in IMAX, and suddenly the film leaped from "pretty okay" to "quite good" (bigger is unquestionably better in a film that relies so heavily on visuals). I stand convinced now that a third viewing might even push the score higher. I'm still not gushingly in love with it (as many are), nor do I ever think I will be, but I can certainly accept that Snyder has taken on an unenviably difficult task and actually done pretty well by it. Only time will tell if this will go down as the "great art" some have proclaimed it to be (I'd certainly argue that it isn't), but for the time being it's an enjoyable popcorn flick. I'm happy with that. I mean, aren't you?

Whew. All right. I think that should do it for a few weeks, at least. 'Til then!