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.}

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