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!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Movie Roundup: 5/17/09

Yup. It's been over a month again. April was an exceedingly busy month, though. And that early May finals rush is always a bitch, too. But I'm free now! I'm done! And I fully expect I'll be watching tons and tons of movies over the next three months, so naturally that means lots of Movie Roundup posts. Be excited!

But first I have to get all the watched-during-the-semester films out of my system, so let's do that, shall we?

Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000) 37
A big ol' bloody disappointment. I had really high hopes for this, but I found myself becoming more and more frustrated as those hopes were continually stepped on. From the beginning it certainly feels like it's going to be great, and maybe it could have been, but as soon as the Most Dangerous Game is underway the film slips into a monotonous (and frankly uninvolving) torrent of bloodshed that steadfastly refuses to end. And when it does end, it's murky to an extreme that I find difficult to reconcile with the clean-cut, in-your-face tone of the rest of the film. This is the sort of thing you expect to provide some sort of crushing coup de grace in its final frames. Instead, it takes that left toin at Albuquoikey and opts for a resolution that had me going, "Huh?" I think its problem is that it asks us to become interested in characters who, at least for my money, are never developed enough (I mean, god forbid it take time away from its grenade-wielding decapitated heads in order to actually construct a backstory). So we get unsatisfying snippets that hint at the sort of pathos required for this to work, but it never quite gets there (Kitano in particular needed to be fleshed out a whole lot more; as it is, he's just a creepy bastard, and confusingly so). And I understand that I'm criticizing a film ostensibly about senseless bloodshed for having too much senseless bloodshed, but the blood itself isn't my issue: it's just that I wanted more than that. I wanted a deeper insight into the senseless bloodshed. I liked the Lord of the Flies-esque "inherent savage brutality" theme as far as it took me, but I got the gist pretty quickly; after that, the film just didn't have anything else to offer aside from crotch-stabbing, blood-vomiting, and all sorts of other colorful ways to die. To wit: it's an intriguing idea for a film (even though, yeah, the central concept is a fairly contrived plot device that must be bought into in order for anything to work), well-made, and I can easily see why lots of people love it. I just had too many personal issues that got in the way of, er, enjoyment ... or whatever the proper word is.

Che (Steven Soderbergh, 2008) 14
Look, I've seen some bad films in my time -- films I wouldn't touch again with a 10-foot pole if you paid me, but I reserve a special kind of hatred for Steven Soderbergh's bloated, dull, and damn near unwatchable Che. Let me preface this by saying my assessment has absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Guevara himself, and absolutely everything to do with the way Soderbergh chooses to depict his life. If you take this film as your only source of information, Che Guevara will be nothing more to you than a man who sits around in various jungles and coughs a lot. There's no conflict here. There's no story. This movie is so damn boring I can't even begin to put it into words. This in itself is a cardinal sin: if you're going to make a movie about anything, at least have the decency to make it somewhat interesting. But it doesn't stop there, oh no. Not only is Che far more excruciatingly uninteresting than the vast majority of other films, indie or mainstream, it is also over four hours long. I did not know it was possible to make a four-hour feature film wherein nothing happens, but I have now seen the light (or the heart of an immense darkness, depending). Yeah, sure, maybe Benicio del Toro gives a good performance. Yeah, sure, maybe the movie is skillfully shot and assembled. Yeah, sure, maybe Matt Damon does have a brief Spanish-speaking cameo. I DON'T CARE (well, actually I kinda do about that last one). I could have watched my favorite movie two and a half times in the stretch it took me to get through this. On the bright side, there was an intermission. On the not-so-bright, the second half is significantly worse than the first. Considering the first is already a step or two below watching paint dry, I'd definitely beware those last two hours. You might slip into a coma. Though really, it'd probably be a hell of a lot more interesting.

The Devil's Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001) 66
Let's face it: if you make one of the best movies ever, it really doesn't matter how good the rest of your filmography is; everything else is going to seem like a bit of a letdown. Such is the sorry fate of Guillermo del Toro, whose The Devil's Backbone is a satisfying exercise in wartime ghostliness that nonetheless has absolutely nothing on his later triumph Pan's Labyrinth. Which isn't to say the two films have that much in common: aside from sharing a timeframe and dipping into themes of youthful isolation, they're very much distinct from one another and by all means should be experienced on their respective terms. It's just easy to point out what this film lacks that del Toro's later endeavor would eventually correct: the somewhat unexpectedly low chill factor, the absence of a particularly detestable villain, and a protagonist who is likable but never fully capable of being embraced emotionally. Still, it's very much a good film: the story is unusual and well told, and del Toro has a knack for peppering the proceedings with alluringly odd details (the undetonated warhead is, by all means, both badass and symbolic). In the end, though, it still feels like a well-placed stepping stone in the career of its maker than it does a definitive Statement: even though the journey itself can often be thrilling, it's really more about that final destination.

La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995) 80
A gritty, powerful examination of violence and prejudice in the Parisian slums. One of the things that makes it work so well is its overarching sense of universality: although Vinz, Said, and Hubert are compelling individuals, one gets the feeling that this could have been an identical film even if it had focused on three completely different people. This, more than anything, speaks worlds about the hell these three young men inhabit. La Haine is at once a breath of fresh air and a sobering slap to the face: despite being stylish and technically proficient, it never glamorizes its brutality, and in opting for a character- rather than plot-driven structure (it's essentially a-day-in-the-life, following these guys around) it gives a scary and probably fairly accurate depiction of the sorts of things that happen in the projects on a day-to-day basis. Upon finishing it, it struck me as a film I want to see again very soon: not necessarily because I found it entertaining, but because of how artfully made it is, and how intricately detailed. I felt that, even having paid close attention, I hadn't gotten everything there was to get; that there are layers here, and repeated peeling back will only make the film stronger and more commendable. And even on the off chance that this isn't the case, what I got out of it the first time was tremendous enough just to make me want to see it again for the same experience.

Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) 84
"Best. Vampire movie. Ever," reads the case, and while this may seem at first like your typically played-up DVD blurbage, it does beg a question I've found difficult to answer: is there a better one? I've been mining the recesses of my moviegoing memory for a solid example, but I'm honestly coming up blank. Let the Right One In does everything so well and hits all the right notes that it just may be the finest film of its kind that I have seen. Watching it a second time only made the overall impact stronger (and infinitely more depressing: what I considered a happy ending on my first viewing just destroyed me with melancholy on the second), a hint that -- like its main character -- it's definitely going to be one of those films with some serious staying power. Let me just bask in its glory for a while longer, before Matt Reeves (of Cloverfield fame) comes along and makes his English-language version. Talk about pissing on a perfectly good parade. Hey, I know. Let's remake Oldboy with Will Smith while we're at i--oh shit.

Made in U.S.A. (Jean-Luc Godard, 1966) 34
Again, I want to say I didn't "get it." That I'm just not smart enough to fully understand Godard's self-consciously quirky "artsiness." But you know what? Even if I did, I can't help but feel that Made in U.S.A. would still come across as a giant piece of crap. Sure, Godard can -- and, for the most part, does -- do anything he wants: whether it be giving his characters absurd names like Robert McNamara and Richard Nixon, setting his action in Atlantic City despite everything being in French, or just plain miring his audience down a self-described "murky case" that makes no sense whatsoever. What he forgets is that none of these necessarily make for interesting cinema. Despite some amusing moments here and there, I mostly found Made in U.S.A. tedious. Its mercifully short 85 minute runtime at points seemed torturously long (especially during the extended stretches where the film consisted of nothing but an abrasive tape recording of a political manifesto). But whatever. Maybe the film will find a loyal fanbase. For the first time in 43 years, this is finally getting a U.S. distribution. Normally I would be incensed at the injustice of this, but this is an exception. I can give you one solid reason why Made in U.S.A. should have stayed in France: it sucks.

Primer (Shane Carruth, 2004) TBD
We tried to watch this, but the rental copy was all scratched up, so it skipped like ten minutes of the movie. This is not the kind of movie where you want to miss anything, much less ten minutes. I liked what I saw, but I'm definitely going to have to see the whole thing in order to pass judgment. Stay tuned!

Run Lola Run (Tom Tykwer, 1999) 75
A flashy, stylish, hyperkinetic action film that exists for the sole purpose of being a flashy, stylish, hyperkinetic action film. There's basically no substance beneath its glimmering, immaculately produced surface, but the movie's just so damn nice to look at that it really doesn't matter. It's a lot of fun: not the sort of thing I'd ever turn to for any sort of "substantial viewing experience," but it's a staggering exercise in technique, and it's highly entertaining. For a movie whose only goal is to entertain, I'd say that's a success.

Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954) 95
If Seven Samurai had been the only film Akira Kurosawa ever made, I have no doubt the man would still be regarded as one of the finest directors who ever lived. Even with his almost inconceivably brilliant filmography, this remains his best work: a 207-minute epic of honor and humanity that is still just as jaw-dropping today as it must have been 55 years ago. Rewatching this not too long after having endured Che, it struck me just how phenomenally well Kurosawa handles his three and a half hours. A film should only ever be as long as it needs to be, and if 207 minutes seems excessive at first, just sit down and watch the film. You will not know where the time went. This never gets dull even for an instant: the characters, large and small, are all excellently developed (and, as with all Kurosawa films in which he appears, Toshiro Mifune steals every scene he's in), the story feels utterly natural and logical, and of course the compositions themselves are never less than beautiful (though the man was prodigiously talented in all aspects of his art, I've always felt Kurosawa's biggest asset was his visual style). And I could go on and on, but I won't. I can't do it justice. You just have to see it and experience it for yourself. It's a great film. One of the best. And it only gets better each time you watch it.

Sin Nombre (Cary Fukunaga, 2009) 91
One of the most affirming feelings for a movie buff is the awareness of having been exposed to something novel, to emerge from a theater knowing that you have just experienced greatness. Unfortunately, the more films one sees, the less often this occurs; but in the end it just serves to intensify the feeling when it does happen. Sin Nombre is one hell of a fine film. The last time I can remember leaving a theater with that same feeling in my gut was almost a year ago (and you know which film I'm talking about). It's about time I was reminded what it feels like. To the extent that the film is being marketed at all, which it isn't, I take issue with the approach: face-value synopses make this sound like a movie strictly about Latin American immigration to the United States. While this does constitute a large portion of the film, it is also among the most provocative, not to mention unflinching, meditations on the brutality of gang violence I have ever seen. But ultimately these two themes, which start out running parallel to each other, coil together in a way that makes them fundamentally inseparable. The ensuing story is satisfying on every level stories are capable of satisfying on. This is a dark, frightening, and forceful film, but it's also a hopeful one. There's beauty in nearly every shot, and despite the overwhelming grimness in which the proceedings are mired, it refuses not to take the good along with the bad. In addition to telling its story with a nearly flawless urgency, this quality also lends it a humanity that makes one's emotional investment in the characters all the more rewarding. The payoff, though rooted in an unmistakable inevitability, is profound and moving in ways I still have not found words for. Sin Nombre is a miraculous achievement: the directorial debut of an American filmmaker who no doubt has a long and fruitful career ahead of him, and for the moment by orders of magnitude the best film of 2009. I'll definitely let you know if I see a better one before December's over, but let's be realistic here: I wouldn't hold my breath.

Six-String Samurai (Lance Mungia, 1998) 53
I'd say it's maybe just a little too much of a good thing. It's all well and good that they set out to make an absurd, largely pointless comedy with random silly monsters and a bunch of crazy shit that isn't supposed to make sense. I'm totally cool with that. It's just ... you have to have enough of said crazy shit so that your story doesn't lose momentum. The first half of this film is fantastic: its hilarious, WTF-bomb-dropping approach worked so excellently for me that it was just about the most fun I'd had watching a film in forever. Unfortunately, though, instead of introducing new stuff as the story rolls on, it starts to recycle itself (oh, look, more crazy monsters, except these live in underground pipes, etc.), and in the end it just becomes kind of tiresome. Again: too much of a good thing. So it ends not with a bang, but a whimper. And that's a shame, really, because there's a lot of genuinely hilarious stuff here; I give it a middling score not because I disliked it, but because it bites off more than it can chew and ultimately never recovers. Which isn't to say you shouldn't see it. You'll have a lot of fun with it. Just don't expect greatness (or even consistency) from it.

Tenebre (Dario Argento, 1982) 57
There's a certain self-conscious ridiculousness surrounding this movie that I really got into. Whether or not Argento is actually taking himself seriously I don't know, but the film comes across as so completely campy and un-serious that it's hard not to find it just a little bit endearing. Plus, it has a bitchin' soundtrack that just screams 1982. So yeah: not great, but not terrible either. Fun. Unpretentious. Bloody. It's not scary in the slightest, of course, but I'm really not sure it's supposed to be. It's just, for all its murder and mayhem, a decent lightweight entertainment. Ain't nothin' wrong with that.

... and I'm off to a joyous, relatively stress-free (or less stressful, at least) summer of movie viewing and other such niceties. See you before you know it. Really. It won't be long this time.