Sunday, September 30, 2007

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966, Mike Nichols)

I've seen this before, but the older you get, the more it hits home. I really liked the way the filmmakers didn't really disguise the film's theatrical roots, but at the same time added some subtle touches to make it work as cinema. Of particular interest are the occasional bits of behavior that might involve a character walking offstage, doing something, and then returning to the main action, but here Nichols holds on these people for just a moment, not just as a concession to the new medium, but also because that's where the really interesting stuff is happening. And make no mistake, this works like gangbusters as cinema. Despite the theatrical acting and the talkiness of the script, the end result is a movie instead of simply a filmed play (hard to believe it was Nichols' first feature). On top of that, this is one of the few movies that actually benefits from the very public relationship between its stars. Rather than distracting us, the film assumes that the audience knows all about its principal performers, and it builds on this knowledge only to shoot it right in the ass. Liz gets the really showy moments, and she sells them wonderfully, but it's Burton who really kills here. Instead of simply indulging in histrionics, he gives a magnificent, completely lived-in performance that's a wonder to behold. Oh, that voice! Rating: ***1/2 out of ****.

Zoo (2007, Robinson Devor)

While I certainly applaud Devor's avoidance of sensationalism in addressing "zoo culture" in general and the late Enumclaw horsefucker specifically, but I'm not sure this is a satisfactory alternative. So committed to making non-exploitative art is he that his film is gorgeous but has nothing to say. Devor speaks with everyone except those who might have made the film complex and interesting- no interviews with the deceased's ex-wife, no ER doctor or coroner, but hey, they found time for one of the actors in the re-enactment. Another problem is the idea of "bad laughs"- sure, I understand that with such a touchy subject you can't tear your hair out about the parts that will elicit nervous titters in audience members, but certain parts of this movie (like the bit with the miniature horse) were just a bad idea. Rating: 4 out of 10.

Brand Upon the Brain! (2006, Guy Maddin)

As clever as anything Maddin has done, but doesn't quite satisfy otherwise. Maybe it's just that it's too long- all the frenzied imagination wears me out after a while, while Cowards kept it brief at a little over an hour. Pure unadulterated Maddin can be wearying, at least for me, and around the 80 minute mark it just got to be a little much. Still, if that's the worst I can say about it then maybe I'm underrating it after all... Rating: 6 out of 10.

3:10 to Yuma (2007, James Mangold)

Fair to middling oater for most of its running time, but rallies in the final reel with an exciting final gun battle. Nice to see Crowe playing his role with a light touch for a change, and Bale's just as good here. Biggest complaint is that Ben Foster as Crowe's lieutenant is too self-conscious to work in the context of the film. Mangold is mostly an anonymous hack, but at least he's smart enough to stay out of the way until he's needed. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Angel-A (2005, Luc Besson)

Dopey, semi-worthless cinema du look version of It's a Wonderful Life, with a statuesque blonde angel coming to Earth to pull shlumpy loser Jamel Debbouze out of his rut despite the fact that he's one of the least appealing onscreen heroes I've seen in ages (not his appearance necessarily, but the fact that the character is such a cartoonish, uncomplicated loser). Notable only for the black-and-white 'Scope views of Paris, and for the super-foxy Rie Rasmussen- previously featured as the slow-motion legs in Femme Fatale- as the angel. Not that she's very good in the movie (or has much to work with) but she's extremely easy on the eyes, and this film made them eager to latch onto anything worth looking at. Rating: 3 out of 10.

2 Days in Paris (2007, Julie Delpy)

Unlike many films set in Paris, both good and bad, this one doesn't romanticize it, and it's this warts'n'all portrayal of the city that really makes the film feel lived-in. I also like that the central relationship story never quite goes where one would expect it to go- yes, he's jealous and neurotic, but she's no prize either, and if they decide there's going to be a happy ending then it's going to be a hard road to get there. Also, Adam Goldberg gets more comedic mileage with his sotto voce kvetching asides than anyone since Woody Allen in his heyday. The ending is a botch, but it's still well worth seeing. Rating: 6 out 0f 10.

Half Moon (2006, Bahman Ghobadi)

Starts off promisingly, as Ghobadi's direction feels more expressionistic than usual, and his story contains quite a bit of humor. However, the spirit of the early scenes eventually gives way to Ghobadi's usual miserablist portrayal of modern Kurdish life. And while I know that life isn't easy for the Kurds, Ghobadi's insistence on turning every film of his into a tragedy makes it feel like he's making his films solely for Western festival audiences grooving on liberal guilt. Put it another way- if Kurdish life was as consistently bleak as Ghobadi shows it to be, how could they possibly live? Rating: 5 out of 10.

Halloween (2007, Rob Zombie)

Sure, it's an uneasy mix of the original's narrative and Zombie's frenzied imagination, but it's pretty fascinating stuff. And despite all the references to the original series and to other old-school B-movies, Zombie mostly takes his story seriously. My favorite scene finds the grown-up Michael Myers killing a mental hospital orderly played by Danny Trejo. As Myers drowns his victim in a sink, Trejo can only whimper and cry out, "but I was good to you!" It says so much about Trejo's character that he would be nice to this monster and that he believed his kindness would be returned, and so much about Michael that he could find no place for gratitude or sentimentality. Also, great art direction- as in The Devil's Rejects, Zombie takes sets that are atmospheric as hell and makes them look grimy and lived-in instead of simply dressed the morning of the shoot. Rating: 6 out of 10.

Eastern Promises (2007, David Cronenberg)

Pretty good genre film, but little more. Could have done without the plot device of the newborn baby, for one- Naomi Watts gives a solid performance, but I'm not sure an audience surrogate was altogether necessary here. Much more interesting is Cronenberg's portrayal of the cutthroat underworld of the Vory v zakone, ruled over by the sinister yet avuncular Semyon (the great Armin Mueller-Stahl), and the rise of driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen) in the Vory's ranks. Here's where the film's fascination lies, and whenever we step outside that world the interest flags. Likewise, I'm not sure I liked the plot revelations that occurred near the end of the film, but after the already famous naked fight scene I was willing to forgive quite a bit. Worth seeing, but something of a disappointment from Cronenberg. Rating: 6 out of 10.

In the Valley of Elah (2007, Paul Haggis)

Yes, you read that right- I preferred the new Paul Haggis movie to the new David Cronenberg. Maybe Crash was a movie Haggis needed to get out of his system, as if the film's success allowed him to make a movie that wasn't trying nearly as hard to impress people. Or maybe it's just that the murder mystery story of Elah hews more closely to Haggis' background in episodic television, giving him a clean narrative through line rather than the tortured contrivances of the previous film. Wisely, Haggis lets his actors shoulder much of the emotional weight of the film, and Tommy Lee Jones is more than up to the task, giving perhaps the best performance of his career. Hank Deerfield is a hard, emotionally withdrawn veteran, and Jones gives a performance with no wasted gestures or actorly mannerisms. Look at the way he trembles during the fateful phone call to his wife, or the un-softened manner with which he tells the story of David and Goliath to Charlize Theron's young son. In the Valley of Elah is surprisingly apolitical in his approach to the War in Iraq, as Haggis doesn't lay the blame at the feet of the government or the armed forces, but merely questions and despairs at the logic of our country sacrificing its young on the battlefield. Much to my surprise, I was actually thinking Elah might be one of the best films of the year, but then I saw the final few minutes of the film, in which we first see the characters underscored by a baldly heartrending ballad, after which Haggis feels the need to go and Haggis up an otherwise fine film with a positively groan-worthy final shot. Why, Haggis? I was with you right up until the end, pal- why did you have to piss it away? Rating: 7 out of 10.

The Matador (2005, Richard Shepherd)

As expected it's even better the second time. The funny stuff is just as funny, the emotional stuff hits even harder, and my misgivings about the ending melted away. Julian and Danny are more than just an odd couple- they're yin and yang, and that's the key to their friendship. They don't need to spend all their time together, but each needs the other in the world, and they both acknowledge this without having to come out and say it. It's there in the way Danny runs to answer the door to his hotel room when the drunk, sobbing Julian comes knocking, and it's there in the way Julian makes his final exit at the end of the film. Also, if there was ever a director who was born to adapt Hunter S. Thompson, it's Richard Shepard. Rating: 8 out of 10.

Killer of Sheep (1977, Charles Burnett)

After I saw this for the second time in two days, I was leaving the theatre and the two douchebags leaving behind me complained about how it sucked because "it didn't have a plot." Yes, and? Killer of Sheep isn't a plot movie, but that's why it's a masterpiece, I think. It's a portrait of lives from which there is no escape- with a plot there has to be resolution, and resolution would magically clear up the troubles from which Burnett's characters suffer. It's the difference between the games the kids in the film play and the lives of their parents. When something happens to a kid, he'll walk away, cry it out, and then continue like nothing happened- problem resolved. But the problems facing the adults linger. The gangsters who try to bring Stan in on a crime will eventually be replaced by other gangsters, the white woman who runs the liquor store will keep trying to sweet-talk him into working for her (and screwing her on the side). And Stan's bone-deep weariness won't subside, despite his wife's hopes that it will. I didn't get a good look at the naysaying cheesedicks behind me, but when they complained that Killer of Sheep "didn't have any redeeming value," I quickly pegged them as spoiled rich kids. Anyone who has ever worked paycheck to paycheck, or has despaired that life seems like nothing but a long string of jobs interrupted occasionally by sleep, or has simply gazed at a loved one and wanted to cheer him but had no idea how, will find something in Killer of Sheep that speaks to them, no matter what color he is. And all that aside, Burnett gives us one small, perfect moment after another. Like Stan's daughter singing along with Earth Wind and Fire's "Reasons" and stumbling through the words until she gets to the "la la la" interlude, which she sings with the utmost confidence. Or Bracy berating Eugene in rhyme for getting a flat during a road trip to the track, but running out of words to rhyme: "you need to have a spare/but you's a square/that's why you ain't got no spare." Or the rare instance of Stan smiling in the film, when he jokingly explains to his daughter why it rains, and his wife beams back at him, as though she's finally seen the sun break through the clouds.

Also, having come to Killer of Sheep through George Washington- a film I love, mind you- I couldn't help but think of something John Lennon once said in an interview. When a reporter asked him what he thought of kids imitating the band by wearing Beatle wigs, he responded, "they aren't imitating us because we don't wear Beatle wigs." It was a joke, but it says a lot about the nature of homage. Whereas David Gordon Green paid homage to Killer of Sheep as a deliberate, affected style, Burnett simply made his film that way because it was the best way to tell his story under the circumstances. It was born of necessity, but it worked. Someone also needs to take a look at the influence of Killer of Sheep on Stranger Than Paradise. Jarmusch's film is more self-conscious to be sure, but it's also a similarly low-key, black and white portrait of go-nowhere city life. Even when Jarmusch's heroes take to the road, they don't really go anywhere in a deeper sense. Rating: 10 out of 10.

Across the Universe (2007, Julie Taymor)

There's a good reason why Beatles songs are covered again and again- aside from the band's enduring popularity, the songs are compulsively singable. However, most people can't resist the temptation to over-sing- whereas the Beatles themselves generally sang the songs pretty straightforwardly, most who cover them feel the need to squeeze every drop of emotion from the lyrics, tricking them up in order to make them their own. This is one of my big issues with Taymor's film as well- she just can't stay out of the way of the songs. She lavishes layers of visual pageantry on songs that don't really need the extra goosing. For the most part, the numbers that are most effective are the ones that are fairly straightforward- the dual-funeral "Let It Be," "Because" in nine-part harmony, and especially Martin Luther McCoy's take on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Meanwhile, the big production numbers are mostly labored, none more so than the Army-induction number that funds a group of new draftees carrying the Statue of Liberty on their backs while singing "She's So Heavy." The screenplay doesn't help matters- the format is little more than the miniseries The 60s but with all-Beatles music, and too often the transitions between the songs and the dramatic scenes are forced and obvious, as when a lovesick girl named Prudence locks herself in a closet. Gee, wonder what song her friends will sing to cheer her up? Might have been more interesting- if not necessarily better- had Taymor ditched the spoken dialogue altogether and made the movie all Beatles, all the time. There was a dust-up earlier this year between Taymor and studio head Joe Roth when Roth tried to pare down this movie. Now, I don't condone studio intrusion on an artist's vision, but on the basis of the three films she's made to date, Taymor could really use someone to keep her more indulgent side in check. Not studio meddling, mind you, but friendly constructive criticism. Someone to tell her, say, that the Eddie Izzard version of "Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite" serves no purpose in the film, shoots the pacing all to hell, and is incredibly annoying to boot. Rating: 4 out of 10.

Monday, September 3, 2007

September 2007 mini-reviews

9/29- Feast of Love (2007, Robert Benton) [w/o] {Now that I'm paying to watch movies, you'll probably see more of these than before. Between Freeman on autopilot, Kinnear as the world's most oblivious man, and the vapid kids, I found absolutely nothing to latch on to here. I bailed just after Fred Ward threatened his son's girlfriend with a knife. No compelling reason to stick around- even the musical choices are lazy. I hope I never hear the Jeff Buckley cover of "Hallelujah" again in my life, and the Frames song just made me wish I was watching Once instead.}

9/23- Inferno (1980, Dario Argento) [***] {Bugfuck and nonsensical, but not in a bad way. Definitely suffers with home viewing (I saw it dubbed onto VHS from a DVD), will need to catch this on the big screen. Only real quibble is how dated the Keith Emerson (of ...Lake, and Palmer fame) score is, although it also contributes to the crazy otherworldliness of it all. And the scene with Kazanian and the rats is pretty goddamn incredible.}

9/23- Phantom Lady (1944, Robert Siodmak) [***1/2] {What she said, basically. Ella Raines- whoa. Raines aside, what really makes this cook is that it's a scruffy, seedy noir, but it's also at its heart a love story. Raines isn't a goody-goody, but she's not a femme fatale. She's a smart, resourceful woman who will do whatever it takes to free the man she loves. In a genre full of double-crosses and friends who are really users, this kind of unconditional devotion is rare and special.}

9/16- The Crying Game (1992, Neil Jordan) [***1/2] {What more can be said? Jordan's knack for switching gears both tone-wise and narratively is uncanny here. Jaye Davidson gives one of the great one-off performances in cinema history, but it never feels like a stunt. And Stephen Rea is of course a treasure.}

9/15- No End in Sight (2007, Charles Ferguson) [7] {The perfect film to pair with Redacted for your why-Iraq-is-a-clusterfuck double feature. Still mainly a talking-heads-and-stock-footage affair, but the talking heads are so well-chosen and insightful that I didn't really mind.}

9/14- The Italian Job (1969, Peter Collinson) [***] {It's illustrative to compare this to the 2003 version, which added a revenge plotline and the father issue, while subtracting the very specific British humor and setting the main heist in L.A. instead of Turin. Also, I like Wahlberg, but he can't match Caine at his most caddish, plus there's no Noel Coward or Benny Hill ("I like 'em biiiiiiiiiig!") equivalent. I think the chase is actually more exciting in the original, and certainly more intentive. Also, LOVE the ending.}

9/12- Wojaczek (1999, Lech Majewski) [**1/2] {If Aki Kaurismaki made a biopic, it'd probably look something like this. Worth seeing, but lacks the rigor of Van Sant's Last Days and doesn't give much insight into what made the title character a compelling poet. But then, that may be the point- he drank and screwed, he threw himself out of windows, he finally OD'd on pills, but before that he wrote some poems. It's almost an afterthought.}

9/6-9/11- Toronto International Film Festival