Saturday, May 14, 2005

FilmFocus Reviews 

Hey, here's what I've written for FilmFocus UK over the past two months. I'm still on the staff there, but they've generally had things covered on their side of the planet for the last couple of weeks (and I've been very busy), so I haven't been called upon lately. I'll try to get an update here of what I've been seeing and what I think of it.

Downfall (a.k.a. the Hitler movie)
Anatomy of a Murder (yes, that's the old Jimmy Stewart film; it was recently re-released in the U.K.)

Sunday, March 13, 2005


Hey dudes,

So I've started writing weekly reviews for FilmFocus UK, meaning this blog hasn't been updated lately (not that it was being updated that much before, but anyway). Anyway, here are some links to what I've written there so far:

Ocean's 12
In Good Company
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (seriously, why don't more people like this movie?)
Hide and Seek
Hotel Rwanda

I swear I haven't just been assigned every movie beginning with the letter "H" for the past few weeks (coming up next is Constantine, so that'll break this vicious cycle). This has been a pretty good deal for me; writing on a deadline for someone else forces me to actually sit down and, y'know, write, which this site just doesn't force me to do, since I'm not very good at forcing myself to do anything. I'll try to keep contributing posts here, but I'm no longer devoted to writing something about every film I see, like I once was (in a half-assed way).

Peace out.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Top 10 of 2004 

Normally, I would use this space to complain about how lousy this year was and how good choices for this list were ridiculously scarce, but I can't because . . . 2004 was a good year. Really good, actually: I saw more than enough films worthy of the Top Ten, and they weren't hard to find. On with it, then:

1. Kill Bill, Volume 2 (Quentin Tarantino) - I've heard the complaints: talky, rambling, pointless, not as much fun as the first. Needless to say, I don't agree. I will agree that Volume 2 is a very different animal from Volume 1, but I also think this is the point. Faced with the prospect of splitting his film in half for reasons of time, Quentin Tarantino instead split it for reasons of style, crafting a Western-themed changeup to complement his Asian-themed fastball. Tarantino's indulgent style may irritate some, but I love his incessant devotion to the perfect scene: no sequence exists simply to advance the plot or deliver new information; rather, each is a chance to create a new, small world inside the large one already established. The flashback in which Pai Mei trains The Bride didn't need to be in the film, but I'm sure glad it was.

2. Before Sunset (Richard Linklater) - What I love about Richard Linklater is that he fools me into believing his films have been created on the fly, as a lark, throwing form and caution to the wind, even though closer inspection reveals them to be tightly-controlled works of art. Linklater pulls off his best slight-of-hand in Before Sunset, a film -- a sequel -- created on the self-conscious premise that the original film's lead character has written a book about his experiences in said film, raising the possibility of a hopelessly navel-gazing postmodern exercise. What results is instead a laid-back, unpretentious, engaging movie about two people who simply talk about their lives and gradually reconnect with one another. Nothing in Before Sunset happens by accident, but the beautiful thing is that it feels like it could've.

3. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry) - I don't know how Charlie Kaufman makes such zany ideas so gosh-darn entertaining and accessible, but it's a good thing he's around to do it. And I must give extra props to Michel Gondry, who may have screwed up Kaufman's Human Nature, but who thoroughly redeems himself by wedding a brainy script to ever-shifting, haunting, impressionist images. The result is a Kaufman script with the heart magnified, and we get the best of both worlds.

4. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou (Wes Anderson) - I firmly believe that many of those who labeled Wes Anderson's latest effort a "disappointment" will be eating their words after a few more viewings. The Life Aquatic is an Anderson film through and through, but with an opened-up world, one in which his characters' trademark obsession with the past seems all the more ridiculous. I think there is a point to be gleaned from all this, but for now I'd just like to talk about how much I enjoy spending time inside Anderson's obsessive little mind. Who else would make a boat look like a dollhouse? Or would just invent something called a "jaguar shark"? Or wants to sing David Bowie songs in French? We need to nurture this stuff, people.

5. Sideways (Alexander Payne) - This film has gotten its ass kissed by so many critics' groups that it almost seems too obvious to include it here. On the other hand, it would be much harder to leave Sideways off this list, so here we are. Paul Giamatti's performance alone is worth the price of admission; plenty of films about lonely middle-aged men have been made over the years, but few have been so accurate. (Is this what I'll be like when I'm in my forties? Best not to think about it.)

6. The Incredibles (Brad Bird) - Brad Bird's first collaboration with Pixar Studios is just a big, fat pitcher of fun concentrate, marrying the former's affection for bygone eras to the latter's propensity for breathtaking set-pieces, and further smashing the notion that a studio can't maintain a high level of quality filmmaking. Pixar keeps its standards high, and detailed, intelligent entertainment like The Incredibles is the proof.

7. Million Dollar Baby (Clint Eastwood) - We (critic types, mostly) like to talk about the importance of originality in cinema, about how filmmakers need to keep innovating so the medium will keep evolving. But a film like Million Dollar Baby reminds us of why certain genre cliches were created in the first place: when played well, they work. Clint Eastwood's boxing film may not be the most original thing around, but I can't imagine how it could've been done better.

8. The Corporation (Jennifer Abbott and Mark Achbar) - The Corporation is probably exactly as fascinating as a documentary lecture about the dangers of a corporate world could possibly be. Could I pay a bigger complement to this film? Okay: trust me on this one, the 145 minutes really fly by. Abbott and Achbar never run out of new information, new perspectives, and new stories. Seek this one out; it's great, thought-provoking stuff.

9. I [Heart] Huckabees (David O. Russell) - Some were likely put off by David O. Russell's wordy, philosophical dialogue, but I never saw I [Heart] Huckabees as a lecture. It's a funny, creative, and poignant ensemble piece about the search for connection, and our desperate need to know that we're not alone. That, and: "Fuckabees!"

10. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay) - Surprised? Honestly, I surprised myself a bit with this pick, which will surely be appearing on more Worst 10 than Top 10 lists this year. My justification is thus: I like to reserve my tenth spot for something off-kilter or unexpected, and though there were plenty of other choices that could easily have gone here (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Dogville), none were as oddball as Will Ferrell's ode to . . . well, I'm not sure what exactly, but nothing made me laugh harder all year. A man explaining the meaning of true love by singing "Afternoon Delight"? You can't buy inspired weirdness like that.

Honorable Mention (not necessarily in order): Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuaron), Dogville (Lars von Trier), Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston), Control Room (Jehane Noujaim), Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi), The Spongebob Squarepants Movie (Stephen Hillenburg), The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass), Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (Takeshi Kitano)

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Don't Call It a Comeback, Part 2 

I was sitting here making a list of all the films I've still got to review on this blog. It started getting ridiculously long, and I realized that the only way to knock them out now was to provide a super-condensed comment for each. I profusely apologize for this . . .

Now in alphabetical order (because I really don't remember when I saw a lot of these):

Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (Adam McKay, 2004) - Laughed my ass of is all; it's consitently, wonderfully insane, truly off-the-wall stuff. Steve Carrell rocks my socks ("I love lamp."). B+

Before Sunset (Richard Linklater, 2004) - Never seen Before Sunrise, and it absolutely didn't matter. A delightful film with no purpose but to put us in the company of two intelligent, endearing people for 90 minutes, imbued with Linklater's typically generous worldview. A-

Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004) - A little disappointing (beware the third-act plot contrivances), but still pretty good. I always knew Jaime Foxx had it in him. B

Fahrenheit 9/11 (Michael Moore, 2004) - Look, I agree with the guy's opinion of Bush, but Moore is very quickly over-exposing himself. I'll grant that some of Moore's old populist humor n' pathos still comes through, but Moore's content doesn't lend itself well to so much lecturing. B-

Garden State (Zach Braff, 2004) - Braff has some potential, but his keen audio-visual sense is torpedoed by his own shallow script (Natalie Portman's character is lacking in motiviation, oh, pretty much all the time). Props for the awesome soundtrack, though. C+

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (Mamoru Oshii, 2004) - I dig me some anime, but even I have to admit that several animators of the Japanese persuasion tend to indulge in the philosophical mumbo-jumbo a bit too much, at the expense of things like the character and the story. This is another example of such. C

Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2004) - Some find this film's politics troubling, but I'm still willing to extend the benefit of the doubt that the message is more ambiguous than imperialistic. Not quite to the level of Zhang's early masterpieces, but still pretty enthralling for long stretches, and undeniably gorgeous. B

I, Robot (Alex Proyas, 2004) - Yeah, you thought it was gonna suck too, right? Well, it doesn't suck, and it isn't the horrible demolition of Asimov's ideas we all expected, though the cop-movie formula is followed a little too closely for me to take this film seriously (will Chi McBride ever get to play something other than a school principal or police chief? Stay tuned!). B-

King Arthur (Antoine Fuqua, 2004) - One good scene (on the frozen lake). Otherwise, it's a dull, nonsensical, ugly mess, so self-serious it's impossible to even enjoy as camp. C-

Open Water (Chris Kentis, 2004) - The opportunities for an incisive critique of man's relationship to nature or in-depth character development of a couple reacting to crisis are jettisoned so the director can just throw some people in the water and give them threat after threat to pad the movie to 90 minutes. Doesn't work as verite either, with all the self-conscious cutaways to Indifferent Nature and so forth. C

Resident Evil: Apocalypse (Alexander Witt, 2004) - I don't think I even need to explain why this sucked. D+

Shaun of the Dead (Edgar Wright, 2004) - Clever, just-this-side-of-serious parody of zombie movies. All this, and some touching moments too -- good times. B

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Kerry Conran, 2004) - Everything is in place here to make a terrific adventure: Fast-paced story? Check. Cool effects? Check. Some good action sequences? Check. Memorable characters? Well, you can't have everything. B-

The Village (M. Night Shyamalan, 2004) - Night, you're a swell director, and you always deliver some terrific atmosphere and at least one brilliant sequence. But dude, it's time for an intervention about the plot twists; this movie could've been so much better if you weren't so addicted to the darn things. C+

We Don't Live Here Anymore (John Curran, 2004) - Jill Cozzi nailed it pretty well over on the Cinemarati boards, so I'll let her take it from here: "You self-indulgent twits, get the fuck over yourselves already! You have kids, dammit!" C

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Don't Call It a Comeback 

So, life interfered at the end of this summer, and I didn't write anything for two months. Taking on a lot of commitments will do that to a fella. But I've still been seeing movies, and now it's time for me to go into recap mode:

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster (Joe Berlinger & Bruce Sinofsky, 2004) - The most prevalent argument I've heard against this rock doc is the old one about how rich and famous rock stars are hardly deserving of our sympathy. I admit I've never understood where this kind of reaction comes from: does the mere presence of wealth and fame suddenly render a person's problems invalid? Doesn't this line of logic wind up invalidating the emotional arcs of most of Shakespeare's tragedies? Whatever. Some Kind of Monster has some pacing problems (Metallica's "creative process" is interesting for about ten minutes), but the long haul is worth it for priceless bits about the group visiting with their therapist, James Hetfield in rehab, and Lars Ulrich's weird-ass father. Berlinger & Sinofsky take a fan's view of things, which is probably good; it keeps the film from taking a smug, mocking tone towards the band (who do often veer into self-parody), and coming out emotionally richer for it. Finding the humanity in modern-day icons is not a new thematic tack, but when it's done well, it's good stuff. B+

Coffee and Cigarettes (Jim Jarmusch, 2004) - It's been two months, so as you may imagine, the individual merits of Coffee and Cigarettes' respective sketches have become awfully fuzzy in my head. As is to be expected, the whole thing is pretty uneven, but the good sketches are (barely) worth the price of admission. I vaguely recall the ones involving Cate Blanchett and Alfred Molina/Steve Coogan to be the best of the lot. I guess I'm going with . . . B-

The Bourne Supremacy (Paul Greengrass, 2004) - I marginally liked The Bourne Identity -- it was a sold, unpretentious action film with a refreshing lack of dead spots -- but didn't feel it was anything memorable, nor anything that demanded a sequel. Fortunately, The Bourne Supremacy is a far superior effort, due to some excellent character work from Joan Allen, Brian Cox, and Julia Stiles (yes, you read that right, Julia Stiles!) and a general heightening of intensity. Sometimes Paul Greengrass' affinity for the hand-held shakycam goes a bit overboard (there are sequences in which it seems someone had literally dropped the camera on the floor and allowed it to be kicked around), and they should probably just hold the damn thing still in quieter, dialogue-driven scenes. But the improvements on the original Bourne film are well-appreciated; this one contains more earned pathos, a more involving story, and makes a heck of a lot more sense. (For those wondering what the heck Clive Owen's "headaches" line in the first film meant -- finally, something resembling an answer!) B+

Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (Takeshi Kitano, 2004) - I'm not even sure how to talk about this film. It's definitely one of those films of the Badass Cinema, so it's got the violent revenge story, but then it slips into broad comedy (why the heck does Zatoichi paint over his eyelids?) , and at the end it becomes some kind of musical. The only thing it definitively is is a Takeshi Kitano film, created by someone who makes artistic decisions based simply on what his muse tells him to do, whether it can be explained or not. At times, the film's strived-for "epicness" is undercut by its low-budgetness (anyone else notice that the swordfighting in the rain was actually happening on a sunny day?), and rendering all of the bloodspray in CGI doesn't work at all -- but most of the film's problems are overridden by Kitano's presence in the title role: more than any actor working today, Kitano simply embodies cool, thoroughly and effortlessly. Two hours in his presence? We are not worthy. B+

More to come . . .

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004) 

I'm going to do quite a lot of complaining in this review, so let me say this first: Spider-Man 2 is a perfectly good movie. Really. It's got a lot of exciting stuff, some good performances, and an almost shockingly consistent focus on character and theme over action and plot -- shocking, that is, for a big-budget studio action flick. I'm still exceedingly happy that Sam Raimi was given the reins to this franchise; the Spider-Man films play like films made by someone who would've done it for free (you get this feeling whenever Spidey swings around on his webs -- it's the most exhilarating thing in the world), just for the love of the material, and that's just peachy.

That said, I probably would've been more impressed by Spider-Man 2 if I didn't think Spider-Man did pretty much everything the sequel did and did it better. The one exception to this rule is the action choreography -- aided by the improved visual effects -- which is a lot more creative this time around. Spidey vs. the Green Goblin had a tendency to feel perfunctory, but Spidey vs. Doctor Octopus is just plain breathtaking; one sequence (Aunt May taken, building chunks falling, Doc Ock attacking) juggles about as many balls as possible, and it's the perfect kind of fight to impose on our put-upon hero. But even with the improved action, the pace of Spider-Man 2 isn't quite as breathless as it ought to be, and the thematic content has (if you can believe it) become even more thuddingly obvious than before: we're stuck with scene after scene of characters stating themes outright, repeating "hero" and "responsibility" and any other Important Point they can smack you about the head with. The attempts at humor are a mite troublesome too: one thing I loved about Spider-Man was how unapologetically melodramatic and quintessentially Marvel Comics it was, but Raimi must've heard some of the criticisms about "cheesiness" in the first film ("brilliantly cheesy," I would've said), and decided to break the sheen with self-referential gags ("You threw away my comic books, May!").

Naturally, this has all resulted in across-the-board improved reviews for the Spidey sequel. I'm probably one of two people in the audience who bothered taking the comic-book stuff seriously in the first movie, and therefore found the depth Raimi was getting at (can I say how much I loved that Uncle Ben's speech near the beginning clearly spoke about the themes, and they were never mentioned at all thereafter, only played out in the ensuing action?), and now it's all got to be a little more obvious so that everyone can partake. It's not a bad strategy: I'm still going to enjoy it, because hey, it's Spider-Man, presented lovingly and uncynically, and if more people get hip to this comic-book thing, so much the better. If I like it just a little bit less, and most people like it a whole lot more, it's not a bad tradeoff. B+

Friday, July 16, 2004

Another One of Those, Y'know, Catch-ups 

Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (Rawson Marshall Thurber, 2004) - Dodgeball is yet another example of lazy comic writing: a pretty good concept that makes use of almost none of the possibilities inherent to said concept. In other words, for a movie called Dodgeball, very little of it is actually about dodgeball. Most of the jokes are standard sexual/potty humor found in just about any other movie, and only in select few moments (such as a public-service ad parody starring Hank Azaria) do we see jokes that naturally evolve from the idea of dodgeball-as-pro-sport. There are committed comic performances from old reliables like Vince Vaughn, Ben Stiller, Gary Cole, Stephen Root, and Rip Torn, but the mediocre material keeps them from generating much more than mild chuckles. C+

Around the World in 80 Days (Frank Coraci, 2004) - Mildly charming, sympathetic actors and a handful of celebrity cameos occasionally liven up an otherwise rote, predictable story that over-emphasizes its humor to the point of annoyance. I really don't have much to say about this; it's pretty much the definition of C material.

The Stepford Wives (Frank Oz, 2004) - The Stepford Wives has been taking quite a beating from critics, and I can certainly see why: it's got a lame cop-out ending that smells badly of studio-enforced rewrites and makes a big mess of the already-thin sci-fi concept. Up until then, though, I was kind of grooving on Frank Oz and Paul Rudnick's attempt to update the 70's suspense story into bitchy black-as-pitch comedy (the original film sympathized greatly with its heroine; this one sympathizes with pretty much nobody), as obviously infused with Rudnick's campy sensibility as possible. Dark comedy is probably the right direction in which to take The Stepford Wives; these days, the story wouldn't play if done seriously, and some of it is pretty funny. But then there's that ending -- oh my, what a shame. B-

The Terminal (Steven Spielberg, 2004) - For a movie that's basically about nothing, The Terminal is as charmingly about that as a movie can be. You know you're going to find nothing less than top-notch technical merit in a Spielberg film, and The Terminal has gilmmering cinematography, clever musical score, and excellent performances to spare. There is, unfortunately, the small problem of the script, which seems to be making a point about American xenophobia or somesuch and then ambles off on a love story involving a stewardess and jazz music. Even with all that, the film still seems to be going somewhere interesting (hey, Minority Report and Catch Me If You Can had fairly layered themes), but it reaches the end without resolving any of the secondary character arcs or making much of a point, leaving me with a profound sense of "blah". But at least it was a warm, fuzzy "blah". B-
Napoleon Dynamite (Jared Hess, 2004) - Napoleon Dynamite employs a pretty audacious strategy for a comedy: it tries to win us over by being as ugly and mean-spirited as possible. This tack might've worked -- if the filmmakers were at all sincere about it. The problem with Napoleon Dynamite is not, as you may have heard, that it's all about "laughing at the nerds" humor; it's that it's so plainly, bluntly not about making fun of the nerds -- this is a geek ode so self-congratulatory as to make Antoine Fisher blush. In every second of star Jon Heder's overly-mannered performance, you can hear him giving you the old wink-wink-nudge-nudge: "I'm not really like this, but isn't it terribly cool that I am?" I suppose it's unfair to expect another masterpiece along the lines of Ghost World or Rushmore -- nerd-sympathizing films that still acknowledge the self-gratifying martyrdom of nerdiness -- but Jared Hess's faux-triumphant finale is the kind of cynical ploy we should all immediately see through. C-

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