Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Bridesmaid (2004, Claude Chabrol)

Chabrol's late-period filmography has become as tightly-focused- some might say as narrow- as Ozu's did near the end of his life, but if anything Chabrol's only gotten more perverse, and thank goodness for that. This is probably his best since LA CEREMONIE, another Ruth Rendell adaptation. What I dug most about THE BRIDESMAID was the way Senta treated killing much like most "good girls" treat sex- as a sign of trust, a giving of oneself for another (love the payoff of this during the final sequence). As usual with Chabrol, he only provides the slightest hint of psychoanalysis, and just as typical is that it doesn't explain nearly as much as we hope and/or fear. Also, Laura Smet- yowza. Chabrol may be the most reliable filmmaker nowadays for the sheer variety of smokin' young ladies in his movies, but she's really something else. It's not that she's alternately hot and scary- it's that she's often both at the same time. Her face is really marvelous too- sometimes hard, sometimes soft, sometimes Eurasian, sometimes vaguely extraterrestrial. I have no idea what kind of range she has beyond this film, but I'll be damned if she wasn't perfect for this one. Rating: 7 out of 10.

Spider-Man 3 (2007, Sam Raimi)

Too much plot, Sam. With three villains to work with, plus Parker's relationship issues and a new girl waiting in the wings, this lacks the narrative simplicity of its predecessors. The idea of Raimi going back to the Spidey well again looks kind of unlikely, given the finality of the film's ending- there's not even a swinging through the city capper like in the two previous Spidey adventures. Also, too much goofy comic relief in the middle- I understand that with this much plot it probably had to be every minute of its 2 1/2 hours, but this stuff just distracts from what we came to see. Perhaps the filmmakers feared being too serious, lest they turn out like HULK. And when are they gonna use The Lizard? I mean, they already have a Dr. Connors in the movie, so you know it's got to happen eventually...} {A day later- man, does the fun stuff evaporate quickly while the problems stick out all the more. For one thing, I forgot to mention what a harpy Mary Jane turns out to be- yeah, it sucks that your career isn't working out as you'd hoped, but you see what Peter (who loves you) is doing? It's called empathizing, and I don't think Raimi does a very good job calling her on her petty crap. Being Spider-Man is just as much a performance as being an actress, and any performer with a shred of self-awareness could see this. Also, fans are probably gonna be semi-pissed by the short-changing given to Venom (admittedly a contentious figure) and especially Gwen Stacy. Gwen might have made for an ideal rebound girl in a subsequent Spidey movie, given how mood swing-y and prone to being victimized Mary Jane is, but instead Raimi relegates (read: wastes) her in a stock other-woman part. Pity, because not only is Bryce Dallas Howard a better actor than Dunst (hotter too, imho) but she captures the movie's spirit better than Dunst, who's always been a wet blanket in these things. My after-the-fact suggestion? Split this installment into two movies. First half: bring Sandman onboard, work out the stuff with Harry, and let the alien oozing stuff and the antagonism of Sandman and Harry bring out Spidey's dark side. Find a way to kill of Mary Jane during a battle with one of the baddies, thus causing a crisis of conscience in Peter. Introduce Gwen and hash out the dynamic with the pre-Venom Eddie Brock. Second half: Peter casts off his dark side, Eddie reaps the benefit, becomes Venom. In fact, Peter isn't sure he wants to be Spidey anymore, so he takes a hiatus to grieve and get his life together. Gwen gravitates to him and helps him move on, but jealous ex Eddie (teamed with the non-dead Sandman) kidnaps her to bring Spidey out of hiding to humiliate and destroy him. Could work, I think. Too late now. Rating: 4 out of 10.

Black Book (2006, Paul Verhoeven)

As far as resistance dramas go, it's no ARMY OF SHADOWS, but I don't expect the same things from Melville that I do from Verhoeven. This is PV's most classically-styled film in decades- perhaps ever- and for most of its length it works largely as hard-edged melodrama, a rousing wartime-espionage thriller in old Hollywood style (not for nothing is the heroine compared to Garbo as Mata Hari at one point) with plenty of Verhoeven-esque gore and nudity. But it gets really interesting once the Nazis have given up the ship- Verhoeven is too close to the reality of the story to let his countrymen off the hook, turning the nationalistic fervor that spills into the streets once the Allies arrive into a moral morass that consumes all questionable parties. The decision to make the protagonist female really pays off here, as the crowd's treatment of accused collaborators is doubly spiteful for women, who get branded as whores as well as traitors. Verhoeven is best at this kind of tangled morality, which often gets manifested as satire in his previous films, but here becomes the story's dramatic center. Also, there's the little matter of the awesome Carice Van Houten. Rating: 8 out of 10.

Overlord (1975, Stuart Cooper)

Harrowing stuff. I'm partial to movies that emphasize subjective experience (hence my love for, say, THE SON) and this does it very well. The expressionistic touches- dream sequences and the like- only underline the experiential nature of the narrative. We're not simply seeing this story through the protagonist's eyes- we're getting a window into his mind. Another thing that stood out for me when watching this is how different war is for Americans than for the rest of the world. A few attacks aside, we've been pretty safe over here, with very few major threats close by. European nations, on the other hand, are right on top of each other, and when a large-scale war breaks out, it's right in their backyard. I think this has a great deal to do with the differences between our outlook on war and theirs, since wars have done a lot more damage on the homefront over there than they have for us, military casualties aside. Please note that I'm not hoping for any kind of war to break out in the U.S.- I'm just saying that it's easy to be gung ho about war when it has almost never knocked at your door. Rating: ***1/2.

Requiem (2006, Hans-Christian Schmid)

Would make an interesting double bill with BREAKING THE WAVES, another naturalistic, 70s-set film about the convergence between faith and mental illness. If REQUIEM isn't quite the film WAVES is, it's because Schmid doesn't aim for transcendence the way Von Trier does. But then, transcendence doesn't really fit with this story, does it? Really, this is probably the best possible fictional movie that could have been made of the true-life story of a epileptic girl allegedly possessed by demons (I almost want to rent THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE to see the Hollywood-schlock take on the story). As with WAVES, REQUIEM is so stylistically pared-down (no score underlining the emotions, very little music altogether, no discernible visual effects) that it sinks or swims largely on the ability of its lead actress, and Sandra Huller is more than up to the task. For example, watch the scene near the end of the film where Michaela's parents and priests start praying for her while she has a fit in the kitchen- she starts spewing obscenities and making demonic faces at them, and without an actress who projects complete conviction, the scene would be hilarious. It's to Huller's, and the film's, credit that it's anything but. Rating: 8 out of 10.

After the Wedding (2006, Susanne Bier)

Kind of compromise/disappointment rating here. It's pretty potent stuff but at the same time suffers from an overly programmatic Anders Thomas Jensen screenplay (I'm beginning to think he doesn't write any other kind). Bier's handheld Dogme-esque direction clashes with the plot machinations in the script, which makes for fascinating viewing for a spell until it becomes clear that Jensen has cooked up a more contrivances than the story really needs. For example, what purpose did it serve for Anna's husband to cheat on her? After a while it undoes the narrative, turning the story into a kind of piling on. Which is too bad, because Bier is the real deal- a few too many closeups of mounted animal heads aside, she's got chops behind the camera. This is especially true when it comes to dealing with actors (her next movie stars Halle Berry, so she's got her work cut out for her). Big points for lead performers Mads Mikkelsen, who works small wonders with the best sad-bastard face in movies today, and especially Rolf Lassgård, who manages to juggle avuncular and manipulative with great aplomb. Also, nice to meet Stine Fischer Christensen, whose role is peppered with opportunities for histrionics- she plays a newlywed who is just now meeting her real dad, I mean duh- but never missteps, and has a presence that can best be described as "glowing." Rating: 6 out of 10.

The Page Turner (2006, Denis Dercourt)

Effective enough psychological thriller, with next to no violence to speak of and a creepy mood that is sustained fairly well over the 85 minute running time. However, it's also close enough in feel to Chabrol that I kept thinking how Chabrol would have avoided the occasional pitfalls that Dercourt makes- the sometimes overbearing score, the occasional obvious bit of foreshadowing, etc. Chabrol also would have ended the film a scene earlier, I dare say, but one thing he certainly wouldn't have done was cast an actress besides Déborah François as the revenge-bent protagonist. François' chilly, elegant performance is about 180 degrees removed from her turn as the homeless single mom in the Dardenne brothers' L'ENFANT, and for my money it's at least as good. François has the looks of a cutie-pie version of Virginie Ledoyen, but she has an interesting screen presence in her own right, and hopefully she'll continue to choose her roles as wisely as she has thusfar. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Day of Wrath (1943, Carl Th. Dreyer)

"Probably the least of the Dreyers I've seen," I said to Chris right after it was over. But then it began to really seep into my brain on the drive home- the strange sensuality of the dialogue between Anne and Martin, the elegant spareness of the storytelling, the sheer perfection of the ending- and I changed my tune. As with a Hattori Hanzo sword, you don't compare a Dreyer film to other Dreyer films, but to other films that weren't directed by Dreyer. What makes his work a little hard to parse right away is how stylized the worlds he creates are- while he wants DAY OF WRATH to walk and talk like a naturalistic period piece, in actuality he doesn't aim for realism here anymore than he did with VAMPYR or he later would with ORDET. No less than ORDET, DAY OF WRATH is a parable, albeit a much bleaker one. Rating: ****.

Blood Money (1933, Rowland Brown)

One of the few Crazy Pre-Code Wonders™ I've seen that actually delivers, in large part because it's legitimately nutty, rather than nutty in a "wow, they actually knew about sex back then" sort of way. Knew I'd be down with it during the opening sequence, in which we meet protagonist Bill Bailey by first meeting a crook who retains his services, his assistant waking a judge in the middle of the night to get the crook released on bail, and so on. But I wasn't positive of my enjoyment until the scene with the woman in the tux with the monocle- Bailey spots her at the bar, offers her a cigar, and her reaction is priceless. Plus Frances Dee is incredible here. She clearly loves playing a bad girl, and it's a shame Hollywood didn't let her do it more often. Rowland Brown- a name that warrants further investigation. I mean, the dude made a movie called THE DEVIL IS A SISSY- how could you possibly go wrong? Rating: ***1/2.

Vagabond [Sans toit ni loi] (1985, Agnes Varda)

Pretty much the only thing keeping this from being a full-on masterpiece is the way Varda insists on bringing together several seemingly unconnected supporting characters near the end of the film. There's nothing wrong with the scenes themselves, but rather that she feels the need to tie up their stories at all. For a film so deliberately episodic- indeed, one where the structure consists cutting between Mona's travails and the supporting characters' reminiscences of her- this sudden need for narrative closure feels overly tidy and steals some of the film's power. But the other stuff more than holds up. It's hard to imagine a Hollywood filmmaker crafting such an unsentimental film about an impoverished dropout. Some of the people Mona encounters remark on how "free" her life is, but as we walk many miles in her shoes, these sentiments ring hollow. This isn't simply because this "freedom" has less to do with a romantic yearning for the life of the open road as it does with her antisocial impulses, but also because the idea of freedom is cold comfort on a winter's night. Rating: ***1/2.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

May 2007 mini-reviews

5/31- /Strange Days (1995, Kathryn Bigelow)/ [***] {Mostly dismissed by critics and ignored by audiences on its original release as yet another in a rash of cyber-themed action movies, this actually holds up really damn well. Can we say the same about JOHNNY MNEMONIC or VIRTUOSITY? Doubt it. Works well as Bigelow intended, but it's invaluable as a time capsule of the mid-90s. Not many films of ANY genre combined post-Rodney King racial tension, millennium-specific paranoia, and the increasing voyeuristic tendencies of contemporary society- manifested here in "Squid Clips," a fusion of a drug, virtual reality, and the kind of self-chronicling that would eventually give birth to YouTube. I don't love it like this guy does- no movie that contains a performance as listless as Juliette Lewis gives here would qualify as a masterpiece in my book- but it's exciting and surprisingly potent. Would LOVE to see this on the big screen again...}

5/28- Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007, Gore Verbinski) [5] {Eventually one faces a choice when watching these films- to protest the convoluted narratives or simply give up and enjoy the ride. There was enough of a sense of fun to this one that it proved much easier to give myself over to the ride than it was the last time out. Yes, I know it doesn't make much sense, and that Chow Yun-Fat is completely wasted. But what can I say- it's pretty enjoyable for what it is, and there's more than enough Lester-style daffiness to make it worthwhile. Beats the hell out of most summer junk anyway.}

5/23- #$ The Sixth Face of the Pentagon (1968, Chris Marker and François Reichenbach) {Jeez, is it too soon to change my pick for the defining film of the 60s? Because this is the first film to really live up to my idea of what the sixties were- not idealized hippie-love claptrap like so many other alleged time capsules of the day, but an honest-to-goodness chronicle of the era. What comes out here is the portrait of the protestors before history had proven them right- they're righteous, but they're also angry, and Marker refuses to sanctify them any. The by-product of the Pentagon March was the promise of sweeping change in our country- a promise that has long since been squandered, not just by those who were there, but the subsequent generations as well.}

# The Loneliness of the Long Distance Singer (1974, Chris Marker) [***] {In which Marker essentially hands the film over to star Yves Montand as he prepares for special concert in support of Chilean refugees in France. As far as documenting an event, it's no DAVE CHAPPELLE'S BLOCK PARTY, but it's infectious and Montand shows him the genial host we knew he could be.}

5/21- /The Fury (1978, Brian DePalma)/ [***1/2] {I forgot how gloriously nutty this thing was, and how nihilistic. Sentimentality only exists in THE FURY to be exposed as a weakness and exploited by meaner, more ruthless types. We're supposed to root for Kirk Douglas to find and reconcile with his kid in the end, but DePalma has other ideas, throwing them both off a rooftop. Also, the ending still kicks unholy ass. Amy Irving was so hot back in the day...}

5/20- Away From Her (2006, Sarah Polley) [5] {Two major miscalculations: (1) cutting up the central scene in the film, between Gordon Pinsent and Olympia Dukakis, and interspersing it in various parts of the film's first half, thus eliminating much of its potential power, and (2) the final scene between Pinsent and Julie Christie, in which Christie's character unknowingly says almost exactly what the nurse predicts she would earlier in the film. I think it would have been more honest to end the story on a more uncertain note. But then, it wouldn't have gotten the audience all steamed up, now would it? Also, why have I not heard of Gordon Pinsent before? Christie will no doubt get all the end-of-year accolades, but Pinsent owns this movie- it's his story, not hers, and he shoulders the burden of the story.}

5/19- Indigènes {Days of Glory} (2006, Rachid Bouchareb) [5] {Pretty good combat movie with an interesting historical angle, what with dealing with the largely forgotten North Africans who fought for France in WW2. Unfortunately, it gets bogged down with too much didactic dialogue to reach its full potential. At least it's better than WINDTALKERS.}

5/19- Towards Mathilde (2005, Claire Denis) [7] {Something about the formlessness of Denis' documentaries keeps me from fully embracing them like I do her fiction stuff. Hard to put my finger on what it is exactly though. Still, the choreography is pretty great, and love the Super-8 grain. Also, as usual with Denis, the final shot is awesome.}

5/18- The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006, Ken Loach) [7] {Key line of dialogue: "If they bring their savagery over here, we will meet them with savagery of our own!" Normally, I'd be opposed to dialogue so on-the-nose, but in context it actually works, which is pretty surprising in itself. Helps that for all the violence on display this is still a very talk-heavy movie, with the principal parties feuding with words AND bullets. Rating would be higher except that the screenplay ends up literally boiling down to brother vs. brother, which felt too tidy for this story. With morality so tangled, why make your narrative so neat?}

5/17- Kings of the Sky (2004, Deborah Stratman) [6] {Intriguing documentary about Uyghur acrobats- with special emphasis on record-holding tightrope walker Adil Hoxur- has an anthropological interest without resorting to that National Geographic tourist feel. Stratman wisely avoids narration for the most part, letting the images tell the story, but her direction has an expressiveness that keeps it from feeling like Vérité 101. Shame about the final voiceover, which puts too fine a point on the film's observations of the political turmoil in Xinjiang- not just because it comes out and makes its points rather than trusting the audience, but also because the speaker comes off as too erudite, clashing with the mostly uneducated people we've encountered previously.}

5/14- Deliver Us From Evil (2006, Amy Berg) [7] {What's most effective about this film is the way the grown-up victim characters we meet are still devout in their faith. Because of this, their reaction to the way their appeals to the Church are completely different than they would be were they lapsed Catholics on a simple vengeance trip. When the Church refuses to hear their case, their reaction isn't so much anger as grief borne out of disappointment. Here are people who have held on to their faith even through some terrible ordeals, only to be let down by the Church in which they put their trust. Might have cut even deeper with a more probing filmmaker at the helm- imagine what Errol Morris or Barbara Kopple might have done with the subject- but still quite a piece of work.}

5/14- Hi, Mom! (1969, Brian DePalma) [***1/2] {I wish Brian DePalma would make a sly, hard-edged comedy like this again. The closest he's come lately has been RAISING CAIN, which while it's great is only funny if you get past the overwrought-thriller stuff. Whereas this is balls-out satire- I defy any filmmaker out there to improve on the "Be Black, Baby!" performance sequence. Plus it's so goddamn funny. I must have laughed all the way through the "seduction of Judy Bishop" scene. Lots of people bemoan DeNiro's downfall as a dramatic actor- shit, I miss the funny, nervy DeNiro even more. What happened to that guy?}

5/11- 28 Weeks Later (2007, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo) [5] {A little schizo, and not in a good, gonzo way. Starts out strong, looking like it could be a serious examination of the way survivors of a tragedy come to terms with the less-than-noble things they did that enabled them to survive. In that respect, it might have been a follow-up to Fresnadillo's previous film INTACTO, in that both movies deal with characters who live largely due to luck. But, due no doubt to the demands of the studio, it becomes a pretty straightforward zombie flick, with the twist of the military eventually mowing down infected and human alike. It's pretty well done- nice to see Jeremy Renner not playing a creep for once- but it lacks the thematic heft of the first half. Still, some creepy stuff going on, and this is one of the few films I've seen that actually uses night-vision effectively, as compared to gratuitously and distractingly a la the ROLLERBALL remake.}

5/11- Vacancy (2007, Nimrod Antal) [6] {No thematic heft here, but what can I say- this thing works. Fun as GRINDHOUSE was, especially Tarantino's half, I think something like this might actually be closer to the spirit, if not the style, of those old movies. While PLANET TERROR felt like a fanboy wet dream of a zombie-siege flick and DEATH PROOF was an attempt at the ultimate hybrid of gearhead and tough-chick exploitation, VACANCY is simply an unpretentious, pared-down B scare flick. I can imagine an alternate modern-dress GRINDHOUSE that combines this and last fall's CRANK, two cheap quick'n'dirty genre offerings that simply get the job done. But then, I'm one of the few who actually dug CRANK, so what the hell do I know.}

5/9- The Holy Mountain (1973, Alejandro Jodorowsky) [***1/2] {My first Jodo if you can believe it. And holy fuck what a movie to start on. Where has this movie been all my life? I fear his others will be disappointing in comparison, but at this point I don't care. Did I even see this or was it just in my dreams? The other night I dreamed I was watching an early screening of OCEAN'S 13 but with Orson Welles as the baddie instead of Pacino. After the first five minutes I ran away, afraid that I'd stumbled on something dangerous and Earth-shattering.}

5/7- Muriel (1963, Alain Resnais) [***1/2] {Wow. I need to see this again to get a full read on it, but it's pretty potent stuff. As Kza once put it, the editing in this thing can snap necks and cash checks.}

5/7- Avenue Montaigne (2006, Daniele Thompson) [4] {This movie is kinda dopey in my opinion. Cecile de France deserves better than playing a low-rent Amelie. Only the supporting cast- especially Dupontel and Lemercier- and the Paris-porniness of it make it worthwhile.}

5/5- Queen Bee (1955, Ranald MacDougall) [**1/2] {This month's Secret Cinema screening. Not bad as far as handsome overwrought soap operas go, but it's no LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN. A shame, since it would have been nice to see Joan Crawford cast aside her image- which had long since calcified- in favor of something more self-aware.}

5/4- The Saragossa Manuscript (1965, Wojciech Has) [***1/2] {Um, wow. Easy to see why Bunuel loved this- it confounds viewer expectations as well as anything he's done. Narration within-narration, anti-clerical and -bourgeois sentiments, half-unfinished storytelling, characters who live in the hinterlands between dreams and reality... gee, ya think this might have been his cup of tea? Plus there's the added benefit of being set in Spain but filmed in Polish, plus Zbigniew Cybulski playing a character about 180 degrees removed from ASHES AND DIAMONDS. Lots of fun, although I kinda wish I had a better handle on what was actually going on here.}