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.