Saturday, June 2, 2007

June 2007 mini-reviews

6/29- The Adjuster (1991, Atom Egoyan) [**1/2] {I guess I'm not a die-hard Egoyan fan, since while I respected this early title beloved by his fans, it just didn't hit me like his best work does. It's very chilly stuff, with Elias Koteas' character proving to be a fascinating conundrum- a man who bends over backwards to serve people for his job, but who's distant from his own family. Egoyan shines a light in rarely-illuminated corners of society- the mindset of censors, the escalating sexual gamesmanship between an affluent married couple- but it doesn't really build as much as I was hoping. Can't argue with the performances though, in particular Koteas and Maury Chaykin.}

6/26- Sacco and Vanzetti (2005, Peter Miller) [6] {Still-fascinating (and timely) true crime story gets a somewhat pedestrian documentary treatment, but thankfully the format is sturdy enough that it takes a backseat to the material, instead of dragging it down. No big revelations here, but a damn good primer to those unfamiliar with the case. Tony Shalhoub's Italian-accented reading of Sacco's last letter to his son is a highlight.}

6/23- I Don't Want to Sleep Alone (2006, Tsai Ming-liang) [5] {After the phantasmagoria of THE WAYWARD CLOUD, this feels like Tsai's greatest hits again- urban alienation, a sudden half-explained climate emergency (this time smog), a polysexual love triangle, heroes who are practically mute, Lee Kang-Sheng getting harm visited upon him (we always hurt the ones we love, eh Tsai?). All seen through Tsai's impeccable eye, although I still think his post WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? films have suffered visually from the lack of Benoit Delhomme. Can't argue with the framing, but this gets kinda draggy at times, and really I do wish Tsai would try a little harder.}

6/22- 1408 (2007, Mikael Håfström) [5] {A pretty decent haunted-house flick distinguished by the presence of John Cusack, who's better here than he's been in years. After too many bad chick flicks in which Cusack got called on fill in the blanks for his character, it's nice to see him wandering well outside his usual comfort zone. I'd go so far as to say that this wouldn't be half as good without Cusack- it's one thing to see an actor prone to histrionics in the central role here, but because it's Cusack, perhaps the most composed and laid-back of contemporary leading men, it actually works. We buy the self-possessed cynic at the beginning ("let's Encyclopedia Brown this bitch"), which makes it all the more effective when he loses his shit. Bonus points for (SPOILER) actually pulling off the double-fakeout, which to my recollection no film has done since AUDITION. Well done, guys.}

6/20- Mutual Appreciation (2005, Andrew Bujalski) [5] {Pretty good, but this movie talks so much that when it's over there isn't a whole lot left to say about it. I still prefer FUNNY HA HA somewhat- the hem'n'haw dialogue feels less affected here, but the unpredictability of that film's characters made it more compelling. Also Kate Dollenmeyer > Justin Rice, acting-wise. Thusfar, I'm cool with Bujalski, but I think the people proclaiming him the voice of my generation need to settle the hell down. Although I certainly prefer him to, say, Zack Braff.}

6/18- /Punch-Drunk Love (2002, Paul Thomas Anderson)/ [****] {I think a big reason why I had trouble fully embracing this the first few times I saw it is that the small, incidental touches are pretty much the entire movie here. The way Barry cordially says "goodbye" after his sister has already hung up on him. The small cake he brings to the birthday party. Lance faithfully showing up at work in a suit just like Barry does. The matter-of-fact, indifferent voice Lena's desk clerk uses when asking "are you Barry?" The inside-joke feel of the comedic moments- "business is very food." Barry randomly noticing the 99 cent sign when he's cornered by the Mormon brothers. Lena's red dress, out of focus, down the aisle from Barry at the supermarket. The exaggerated soundtrack when Barry tears apart the men's room. How Barry, thwarted in his attempt to acquire his frequent flier miles, simply buys a ticket to Hawaii. The presence of the Atlas Van Lines truck in several key shots. Lena girlishly swinging her arms as she runs toward Barry. The way Barry hands the tire iron to the weakest Mormon brother, cowering in the back of the truck, after Barry has used it to beat up his brothers. Barry carrying the phone receiver back to the hospital, and then all the way to Utah. Mattress Man getting his haircut when Barry shows up. The phrase "beat the hell from you." And all the little lens flares, momentary swaths of color, funky shadows, and percussive Jon Brion music in between.}

6/17- Man's Favorite Sport? (1964, Howard Hawks) [***1/2] {I might be risking sacrelige here, but I actually prefer this to BRINGING UP BABY, of which this is a quasi-remake. This is mostly due to the more relaxed style that Hawks had when he was older, which gives the characters and comedy a little breathing room, all the better to be taken off guard by the bizarre touches (the bear, the stock footage of the trains, and so forth). And while Rock Hudson would never be mistaken for Cary Grant, I prefer Paula Prentiss' daffy performance to Kate Hepburn's more studied comic style, which has always been my big hangup with BABY. In other words, I believe Prentiss in the role in a way I don't believe Hepburn, whose fussy performance upstages the character. Lots of fun.}

6/17- /The Fugitive (1993, Andrew Davis)/ [***1/2] {Even better than I'd remembered. The direction is solid but not great, but I'm not sure it'd work with flashier filmmaking. In fact, it'd probably get in the way of the acting (not just Ford and Jones, but from a supporting cast chock full of handpicked character actors) and the taut screenplay. What really makes this work is that the film's two opposing protagonists are both smart- Dr. Kimble time and again makes good decisions and avoids falling into easy traps, and Gerard is left to piece together not only where Kimble's going, but also why he's been where he's been. Probably couldn't be made today- not only is it rare to see a big-star vehicle this lean, but the policier has become so self-aware since '93 that studios (let alone big audiences) couldn't be bothered with one this straightforward.}

6/14- In the Pit (2006, Juan Carlos Rolfo) [6] {As one interviewee says, "this bridge has taken many souls," and this film deals with a handful of the souls who've survived its building. Rolfo wisely sticks with the people who pour their sweat and energy into the project but will never receive any credit other than a little money. Not only that, but the workers are so poor that few have cars and probably won't get much benefit from it. Also, special mention to the dude who says, "a man can get used to anything, except work." Amen to that, hermano.}

6/13- La Vie en Rose (2007, Olivier Dahan) [4] {There's a reason why musical biopics are irresistible prestige projects- there's a familiar story arc, ample opportunities for the stars to indulge in great big Acting, and a ready-made soundtrack. Unfortunately, Dahan's only new wrinkle on the genre is that he insists on telling the story out of order, which was no doubt an attempt to shake up the formula, but instead only underlines the episodic nature of these things. Seeing as how Piaf's songs can be easily found, the only reason to watch this is Marion Cotillard, who might engage in awards-friendly mimicry, but does it so convincingly and fiercely that she's kind of hypnotic to watch. But other than that, this is little more than an arthouse MARCHE LA LIGNE.}

6/10- /Modern Romance (1981, Albert Brooks)/ [***1/2] {Man, it's been too long since I saw this last, and having been through a start-and-stop-and-start-again relationship myself (though not to the same extent) it hit me a lot harder this time. In a comedic way, yes, but the laughs catch in the throat, like when Brooks spends the night after the breakup getting gooned on quaaludes (in my case it was booze, but never mind) and randomly calling a girl in his Rolodex. Perhaps the key to the movie can be found in Brooks' ironic use of Joe Cocker's "You Are So Beautiful," whose simple-to-the-point-of-being-dopey lyrics contrast rather sharply with Brooks' constant neurosis and self-analysis. Plus it's really funny, which you already knew.}

6/9- Manufactured Landscapes (2006, Jennifer Baichwal) [6] {I liked how Baichwal's camera mimicked the style of the film's subject, Edward Burtynsky, while at the same time probing into his photographic subjects in ways he can't with a still camera. Overall, an interesting look of industrialization and modernization in contemporary China.}

6/9- Sex and Fury (1973, Norifumi Suzuki) [***1/2] {Righteous. This is about six notches above Suzuki's SCHOOL OF THE HOLY BEAST in terms of quality, not least because the characters and story are more engaging, rather than simply functioning as a clothesline for sacreligious imagery. Was expecting the film to go downhill after an amazing early fight scene, but surprisingly it kept on truckin'. I was a little let down that protagonist Reiko Ike didn't end up teaming with foreign guest star Christina Lindberg for some two-headed ass-kicking, but at least we got the scene of Lindberg whipping Ike, so that was cool. Will definitely have to seek out more (a) Japanese pinky-violence flicks, and (b) Lindberg movies- not sure if she's much of an actress, but she's some kind of wonder, and that's just as special in movies like this, perhaps even more so.}

6/8- Surf's Up (2007, Ash Brannon and Chris Buck) [6] {Between MONSTER HOUSE and this, Sony Pictures Animation is the only animation house who's actually trying to compete with Pixar from a visual standpoint. The filmmakers actually get a lot of mileage from the mockumentary format, as the unconventional (for a 'toon) camera movements freshen up a somewhat pro forma sports storyline. Bonus points for Jeff Bridges for more or less resurrecting The Dude, currently abiding in animated penguin form.}

6/7- Jigoku (1960, Nobuo Makagawa) [**1/2] {The first hour of this is actually kind of a slog, mostly devolving into a pattern of sudden killings taking place around the most cursed character probably ever. Gets more interesting once everyone winds up in Jigoku (which doesn't translate as "Heaven," fyi), with some sweet colored lighting schemes- gee, wonder if Argento saw this?- and theatrical effects. Still not sure how good this is, but it's pretty fascinating.}

6/5- El Topo (1970, Alejandro Jodorowsky) [***1/2] {It's not quite on the HOLY MOUNTAIN plane of awesomeness, but it's still pretty astounding stuff. Unlike HOLY MOUNTAIN, which is amazing from stem to stern, this only really kicked into gear for me after the big honkin' jump-forward in the middle. Don't get me wrong, the stuff with the gun masters is pretty fun, but this really cooks in the last 45 minutes or so. Man, I'd love to see me some Jodo on the big screen.}


Steve C. said...

Even I, as a defender of Hostel II, have difficulty justifying the Mattarazzo/Bathory scene. It just don't fit. Roth shoulda kept it for another movie -- if he wanted to remake Daughters of Darkness, he shoulda, y'know, just remade Daughters of Darkness.

Also, Punch-Drunk Love is so awesome precisely for that which you explicate -- it's a beautiful accumulation of perfect little moments. In addition to what you've listed, there's Barry hitting the door while leaving a scene... Lance's chair breaking in the middle of a scene... the wonderful little bit where Barry opens the freezer door in the supermarket and, for one second, the whirr of the industrial freezer fills the soundtrack... "And bye bye, you stupid motherfucker"... God, I could go on all day.

Paul C. said...

Here's another great little moment from PDL that didn't hit me until this most recent viewing: remember when Barry punches the map on the wall after hanging up on the phone sex girl? Notice what state he punches, then think back to the name the phone sex girl gave him.

Also, the pieces of Barry's mug bouncing up when he trips over the unseen object in the shop, and his hurried "you're gonna need to pick that up, someone could hurt themselves, I did just hurt myself." Plus Barry randomly swan-diving into the road as the brothers are chasing him, and them pulling alongside him and saying, "where you are going? We know where you live!" And the way Elizabeth keeps asking about the pudding and the harmonium when she comes by with Lena. And of course Emily Watson's amazing reading of the line, "what is it, some kind of secret pudding?"

And yes, the sound mixing on PUNCH DRUNK LOVE is killer. Very hyper-realistic. From the opening scene- the sudden thundering noise when the van flips- the sounds are exaggerated relative to Barry's frame of mine.

Paul C. said...

MIND. Frame of MIND. Yeesh.

And yes, we could both go on all day. Shit, I might as well go on and up the rating while I'm at it. Any movie that trades in so many precious tiny moments really deserves it.

Steve C. said...

"Secret pudding"... as if I wasn't already consumed by the idea of stalking Ms. Watson.... (Attention authorities: That is a humor joke.)

I never notice the state he punched, but I did notice that the bruises on his hand add up to a Night of the Hunter homage.

Also, don't make me defend the visual awesomeness of The Wayward Cloud, which I really need to watch again by the by.

Paul C. said...

Well, I'm not denying that THE WAYWARD CLOUD isn't visually awesome. It just lacks the cinematographic presence of WHAT TIME IS IT THERE? Tsai couldn't make a film that wasn't visually compelling, but WHAT TIME? takes the cake, due in no small part to Delhomme. None of the lighting in Tsai's subsequent films was that striking. Think of how he uses the fish tank to light up the room at night, or compare the movie theatre scenes between WHAT TIME? and GOODBYE DRAGON INN.

I do wish WAYWARD CLOUD could have gotten a wider release in the US. I really should pick up the DVD when it gets released, so I can watch that watermelon-themed production number (with a maniacal-laughter refrain!) on infinite repeat.