Saturday, May 29, 2004

The Big Catch-Up Post: Take It, It's YOURS! 

Okay, so here's . . . everything:

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring (Kim Ki-duk, 2003) - For a while now, I've been struggling with my dissatisfaction with Kim Ki-duk's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter . . . and Spring. It's the sort of film I should like: Asian philosophy, lush cinematography, good performances, and so forth. For some reason, though, all that didn't keep me from finding Kim's film unnecessarily ponderous and unbearably self-conscious. It's one of the rare times symbolism becomes a bad thing: everything (and I do mean everything) happens in this film solely to fill out Kim's philosophical schematic, as opposed to the usual reasons of natural character and/or story trajectories, which is a fancy way of saying that I didn't buy most of the plot (I'm also a little skeptical of the film's presentation of Buddhism -- if that's indeed what it is -- but I'll leave that to the experts). Critics have a word for this stuff: pretentious. C

Mean Girls (Mark S. Waters, 2004) - I thought Mark Waters did a pretty good job keeping last year's Freaky Friday remake rolling along, and he does the same with Mean Girls -- only this time, he's got a much better script to work with, courtesy of Saturday Night Live's Tina Fey. Fey's script runs through some surprisingly astute observations about modern high school life (descriptions of cafeteria segregation are especially sharp) and more than a little bit of inspired weirdness (loved the business card reading "Mathlete/Bad-Ass M.F."). Lindsay Lohan does such a good job with this snarky/fun material that it's a shame they eventually saddle her with a lame Big Speech/Happily Ever After ending, but what are you going to do? B

13 Going on 30 (Gary Winick, 2004) - Just to clarify, 13 Going on 30 is nothing like Big. It's got a woman instead of a man, see, and this time the woman moves forward in time along with getting older instead of just getting older, see? Unfortunately, Big isn't the only thing 13 Going on 30 is derivative of (if you've never seen a romantic comedy before, you should love it), and I'm not sure that the ultimate lesson learned by the main character here is all that great. ("Stick with that nerdy best friend of yours, but only because he'll eventually become hunky Mark Ruffalo. And don't worry, you grow up to be smokin' Jennifer Garner.") Still, it's a good thing the film has Garner and Ruffalo, because they (with a little assist from Michael Jackson) lend 13 Going on 30 more life than it deserves. C+

Van Helsing (Stephen Sommers, 2004) - I suppose it's possible to enjoy Van Helsing as great brainless fun, what with all its monster-movie homage, nonsensical mish-mash plot, laughable dialogue, and over-working actors with redeeeculous accsaints. But there's a point at which, maybe at the fourth time you have to ask, "What the hell is going on?", or at the fifth time the Lord of the Rings-derived musical score blasts your eardrums to the point of pain, or maybe at the time there are a few thousand CGI bad guys flying around in an incomprehensible action sequence, at which you realize how much money was spent on something so sloppy, and you realize that the whole thing would've been pretty much the same on about one-tenth the budget, and indeed, probably would've been better. When you reach that point, it's all very depressing, and I reached it pretty damn early. C-

Monsieur Ibrahim (Francois Dupeyron, 2003) - I suppose if I'd never seen Finding Forrester or Good Will Hunting or A Bronx Tale or every other movie in which a young wayward lad meets an older man who teaches him about Life and Love and Mortality, I'd think the world of Monsieur Ibrahim. Unfortunately, I have, and that's the albatross hanging around the film's neck. Francois Dupeyron's effort does follow the hallmarks of this genre admirably well for most of its running time (and it helps to have Omar Sharif along for the ride), but when we suddenly find ourselves in Turkey near the film's end, it all stops feeling organic, goes in for a big-time contrived plot twist, and leaves the Arabs-vs.-Jews thematic element sadly underdeveloped ("All I know is what's in my Koran" -- which is what, exactly?). C

Troy (Wolfgang Petersen, 2004) - My reaction to Troy is similar to my reaction to Van Helsing, though thankfully not as severe. There is some stuff to enjoy here, like some of the one-on-one combat scenes (Achilles vs. Hector = rawk), and some of the better performances (Eric Bana has awakened from the Hulk-induced slumber!). And there's also the fact that it's based on The Iliad, which I've heard tell is a darn good story, and even the worst adaptation would have a hard time concealing that. Still, there's something just plain "off" in the conception of the movie, in which Wolfgang Petersen seems out to prove (a la Das Boot) something about the futility of war and there being no real winners and no real bad guys . . . but then mucks it up by casting really attractive people in the heroic roles (Hector, Achilles) and casting your usual gallery of assholes in the others (Brian Cox, Brendan Gleeson), and then giving the heroes plenty of audience-pleasing revenge scenes. The confused thematics are an even larger problem than they'd normally be, because the whole film -- cinematography, production design, music (Mr. Horner, when you rip off other composers, could you maybe not be so obvious about it?) -- is glossed over with this amazingly beautiful and distancing sheen, making it into the kind of movie that looks like it might break into pieces if you tried to pick it up. You're not involved in the characters or story, even with all this seemingly important stuff happening to all these beautiful people in their perfect mythical land, but it's happening way over there, and you're supposed to start caring soon, but . . . C+

Super Size Me (Morgan Spurlock, 2004) - The approach taken by Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me has already earned obvious comparisons to that of Michael Moore: the sarcastic humor, the casting of himself as narrator, the clever use of music. There's one key difference between the two, though, and it's both a blessing and a curse. Spurlock lacks Moore's self-important streak; he's willing to engage in more than a little self-effacing humor, even as he continues to criticize his corporate institution of choice (McDonald's, mostly). On the other hand, Moore's sense of self-importance also leads him to take on issues that are actually, well, important, and Spurlock's documentary, while highly entertaining, probably doesn't tell anyone what they didn't already know (fast food is unhealthy? What what?). On the other hand, it's one thing to know something is bad for you, quite another to see the effects first-hand (I confess to being surprised at the speed of Spurlock's deterioration), and if Spurlock's month-long fast-food binge convinces people to eat healthier and exercise more, I hardly see where the harm might be. B

Saturday, May 15, 2004

Where the Hell Have I Been? 

Being busy, being sick, being lazy -- all these things contributed to a long neglect of this journal. I had wanted to write longer reviews of some of these films, but as I saw several of them about a month ago, I can't really do that now. So here's another one of those, you know, Dreaded Capsule Posts.

Dogville (Lars Von Trier, 2004) - What was it Mr. Burns said about Marge Simpson's painting? "I know what I hate, and I don't hate this." Dogville is certainly impressive on a technical level, and the performances are extraordinary (it's to the credit of the ensemble that Nicole Kidman is actually one of the weaker actors here, and she's still pretty good). The whole theatrical construct is emotionally and intellectually riveting from beginning to end; Von Trier makes you think he's got you sympathizing with one side of his conflict, and then he pulls a sharp turnaround to show you the other perspective. Even so, Von Trier's worldview (in short: we, collectively, stink) is one I don't particularly agree with, and in the past (Dancer in the Dark) his unrelenting cynicism has kept me from appreciating his work. Thankfully, the vague, non-naturalistic setting of Dogville is well-suited to Von Trier's satirical intentions -- after all, who can dispute that this invented world really is like that? I've still got my issues with Von Trier, but Dogville is worth the effort. B+

The Punisher (Jonathan Hensleigh, 2004) - Well, that was pretty lame. Going in, I wasn't convinced that the Punisher comics are good subject matter for a film adaptation, and the film, er, didn't convince me. I suppose this could've worked with an actor able to properly garner sympathy even while blowing people away, but Thomas Jane is not that actor; he's not menacing enough, and his silent "tortured soul" scenes aren't very convincing either. The long sequence telling of Punisher's origin is too drawn-out and frequently ridiculous, John Travolta is predictably awful as the villain, and let's not even speak of the Love Interest and Mincing Sidekick characters. Action, unspectacular. Cinematography, boring. Editing, machine-like. Next! C-

Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (Quentin Tarantino, 2004) - First, Quentin Tarantino makes Vol. 1, and folks complain there's no substance to the thing. Then he makes Vol. 2, and folks complain it's not exciting enough. Can't win for trying, I guess. I find Kill Bill a fascinating look at Tarantino's artistic personality; his other films have been about the push-pull between his love for trashy fun and his tendency towards philosophical themes. This time, he pulls an even split: one volume to emphasize trashy fun, and another to emphasize the philosophy. In fact, splits and doubles are littered all over Kill Bill, seemingly placed simply to call attention to the schizoid mind that dreamed them up: Asian genre/spaghetti western, Gordon Liu and Michael Parks in dual roles, two sets of credits, etc., etc. An accident? Perhaps, but an interesting one.

Meanwhile, Tarantino deserves credit for his wonderful rapport with actors. Is there anyone else better at resurrecting and/or reimagining actors with such success? First Sonny Chiba in Volume 1, and now: Daryl Hannah as a bad girl (and damn, is she good) and David Carradine, who is such a revelation as Bill that you have to wonder why Warren Beatty was originally sought for the role: Carradine was born for this part, with the weathered look, the filmic history, and the commanding presence to wrest focus away from Uma Thurman (no mean feat, as she hasn't been this luminous since she last worked with Tarantino). Carradine helps it all come together here, providing the emotional heft that Volume 1 could only hint at. Those who say Tarantino is all empty style don't seem to watch to the end of his films, when they invariably become examinations of moral choices, about characters who try to maintain their humanity in an immoral world, and Thurman's character here is brought to the same crossroads at which we found Mr. White, Jules Winfield, and Jackie Brown.

Still, don't get me wrong, there's still some trashy fun here for those who love trashy fun (and if you don't, go read some other blog, seriously). Gotta love that kung-fu training sequence, with the washed-out 70's low-budget look and the -- whoa! -- quick zooms (Liu is full-on Money as Pai-Mei), and the throw-down with Elle Driver is everything you wanted and more. I love the little worlds Tarantino creates in his films; each scene is an opportunity to paint a new picture of something, and hey, we'll get around to some plot development later, because films are not just about telling stories. This is what makes Tarantino one of the most purely cinematic American directors working right now -- no single element is neglected, and he's always firing on all cylinders. We should appreciate this guy while we've got him, because I'm betting his stuff is going to be remembered. A

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