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!

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