Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Time Tavelling Capsule Reviews!!!

Work has been absolute murder this week, and I have no energy to write anything new. If you think that's rough for me, think about how it affects you. However, in there interest of laziness, I remembered that, in 2008, I wrote a whole ass-load of capsule film reviews for a (primarily) literature forum called Palimpsest. The reviews are extraordinarily short, and, given that, weirdly heavy on plot summary, but I thought it might be not-exactly-interesting-as-such to reproduce a few of the "better" ones here, so that we can all compare my lazy brain of 2008 with my lazy brain of today. And so!
It’s Alive (d. Larry Cohen) - Lately, I've been developing a real fondness for genre films from the 1970s that, despite the restrictions of a small budget (and maybe partly because of them) at least set out to be both smart and entertaining. This one, a horror film by Larry Cohen, who has made many of the kinds of films I just described, is about a woman who gives birth to killer mutant baby. I know, but this is actually pretty restrained and serious-minded. The main character is actually the father, played very well by John Ryan, who has, let's say, mixed emotions about this whole mutant-son development. There are clear but subtle nods to the Thalidomide tragedy throughout.

James Ellroy Presents Bazaar Bizarre (d. Benjamin Meade) - James Ellroy presents this in the sense that he leant his name to the film, and every so often appears on camera to tell us how horrible a person serial killer Bob Berdella was. These clips of Ellroy are the only halfway engaging part of this documentary, which is otherwise a snivelling, weasely, immature piece of shit. You get the sense that Ellroy, at least, truly feels for Berdella's victims. Meanwhile, the film itself treats the whole disgusting affair as a big sensationalistic joke which it can exploit to shock its audience. Benjamin Meade should be ashamed of himself. Ellroy, who is ordinarily far above this sort of thing, probably should be, too.

Visitor Q (d. Takashi Miike) - From what I can tell, Takashi Miike's fans spend their time congratulating themselves for having the stomach to sit through his films. With the exception of the very effective, almost-Hitchcockian Audition, "gross" seems to be the whole point of Miike. In the case of Visitor Q, we get necrophilia, lots of fecal matter, lactation, incest, and all to what purpose? Hell if I know. The story seems to me to have been ripped off from Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle: a mysterious young man brings violence and abuse into an unsuspecting family's home, thereby revealing them for what they are. There is also a weak stab at a sleazy kind of redemption at the end -- which makes absolutely no sense -- an element I don't remember from the Potter film. Anyway, this is nothing more than pointless shock.

See the Sea (d. Francois Ozon) - What an extremely disturbing film. Clocking in at just over an hour, it tells the story of a young woman (and, not incidentally, her baby) who is spending the summer alone in a beach house, waiting for her husband to return from a business trip. Alone, that is, until another woman, a backpacker, camps out on their lawn. The relationship with this backpacker goes from pleasantly diverting to, oh my God, so very, very horribly wrong. This film is shocking, but unlike Visitor Q, it is deeply shocking, in the sense that you (or me, at least) care about what happens, and what happens is a square kick to the balls.

Beowulf (d. Robert Zemeckis) - Well, that was a surprise. My enthusiasm for a full-blooded film version of Beowulf was at a fever pitch, until I learned that it was animated. My delight in finding out that Neil Gaiman was a screenwriter was tempered when I learned that his co-writer was Roger Avary. So when I finally got around to seeing this, I did so sort out of a sense of obligation (to whom or what, I don't know). And initially, I thought my fears were well-founded: bad jokes are many in the first fifteen minutes or so. But then Grendel shows up. Often, this film plays like one of the creepiest, most unnerving horror films of the last decade, and it is at those moments that Zemeckis and his team really shine. When it's not doing that (or throwing out more lame jokes), it decides to be an eye-popping, blood-and-thunder adventure, and it does a fine job in that respect, too. I still don't understand why the characters are animated to look like the actors voicing them, but I can forgive that particular quirk for movies as dark and weird as this one.
Atonement (d. Joe Wright) - By and large, I found this adaptation of Ian McEwan's near-masterpiece (sorry, it didn't quite get there for me) to be very good. I found Keira Knightley and James MacAvoy to be much better in their roles than I'd expected them to be, and I was thoroughly impressed by all manifestations of Briony. My problem with the film is primarily that the things that McEwan allowed to sit quietly without comment are underlined with various degrees of vigorousness by Joe Wright (the close-up of MacAvoy screaming "BRIONY!!!" is simply not necessary). Also, if I remember correctly, a slightly wrong note is struck in the last scene. Vanessa Redgrave plays the scene with far too much awareness of the situation.

One, Two, Three (d. Billy Wilder) - I believe that it's about time that I admitted to myself that I do not find Billy Wilder comedies funny. I love his serious films, but his comedies are so "zany", and dated, that my face remains a frozen mask of unhappiness throughout. This one is a madcap Cold War comedy starring James Cagney as a Coca-Cola executive in Berlin who is dealing with his boss, his boss's daughter, and his boss's daughter's Communist fiancee. Hilarity fails to ensue (I'm pretty sure I stole that from somewhere) as the aforementioned zaniness increases in pitch. The last shot of the film is witheringly unfunny. I give extra marks only because I love Cagney, who is as solid as ever here.

The Lost (d. Chris Sivertson) - Stephen King-approved writer Jack Ketchum wrote the novel on which this film is based, a novel which I have read. It tells the story (supposedly based on fact) of a short, sadistic bastard who impulsively kills two female campers, and forces his pal and his girlfriend to act as his accomplices. The murders go unsolved for many years, much to the torment of one of the detectives involved. Meanwhile, the sadist remains primed for more violence, and so forth. The book has a raw, cheap power, but I nevertheless do not recommend it. I recommend the film version even less. It keeps the raw and the cheap, but leaves out the power. Director Sivertson makes the least of his small budget (what the hell year is this supposed to be set in, anyhow?), and has no style save what he lifted from other bad films.

Ghosts of Mississippi (d. Rob Reiner) - If this film didn't tell such a tragic, true story, more people would feel comfortable pointing at it in public and laughing. Have you ever seen a movie that was both smug and guilty? Sanctamonious and groveling? If not, here's your chance. The story is about the assassination of Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, and the corruption of justice that allowed his murderer, a white supremacist named Byron de la Beckwith, to walk around as a free man for decades, until he was finally successfully prosecuted and imprisoned in 1994. A fit subject for a movie, no question, but this movie...oh my sweet Christ. This thing is so programmatic that you could probably, with reasonable accuracy, predict when it's going to drop in a couple of jokes, so the audience can be fooled into believing it's human. Many racially themed Hollywood films have been criticized for placing white characters at the forefront of stories that should be about black people, but sometimes those movies are still good, and should be judged on artistic merit alone. Ghosts of Mississippi, however, is so incompetent and insulting that the dearth of black actors becomes more than a little notable. Not only that, but the black actors who are here are either bad, or are given nothing to do, or both. Whoopi Goldberg is embarrassing as Evers's widow, but, then again, all she's asked to do is be a symbol. Speaking of symbols, don't get me started on that title.

The Long Good Friday (d. John MacKenzie) - A truly masterful crime thriller, this stars Bob Hoskins as a snubby, bulldog of a British crime boss, who, on the day he is supposed to be closing a deal with an American mob family that will take his "career" to new heights, finds that someone is suddenly and violently blowing his world apart. Lifelong friends are being murdered, businesses are being bombed: who is doing this? Along with the strong, straightfoward, no bullshit filmmaking, one of the main things I liked about this film was that the characters are actually allowed to show fear. Often in crime films, if faced with death a character will be stoic or simply open fire; in this film, however, they're visibly terrified. Helen Mirren, who plays Hoskins's wife, has a great moment along these lines. Top-notch film.

Code Unknown (d. Michael Haneke) - It's an act of rudeness, for lack of a better term, that kicks off the action in this hard-to-describe film. A young man is walking to his sister-in-law's apartment when he casually (and possibly unintentionally) throws a piece of trash at a homeless illegal immigrant, who is sitting on a street corner. We follow the lives of the young man, the immigrant, the sister-in-law, her husband, and various others in scenes that function, for the most part, as self-contained short stories. This is an incredibly effective and interesting film, with great performances, particularly by Juliette Binoche. There's a tense scene that takes place on a bus that is a small masterpiece.

Mesmer (d. Roger Spottiswoode) - Good Lord. I was fairly excited about this one, due to its having been written by Dennis Potter. But if ever one needed proof that great writers do not always produce great work, look no further than Mesmer, a film that appears to have been made for about $47, most of which went to pay for the 20 watt bulbs and broken microphones used to enrich the visual and aural experience of us, the viewers. On the plus side, the film is a potentially interesting look at the world and work of Hans Anton Mesmer, early proponent of New Age alternative medicine horseshit; on the negative side, it does include lines like this one, spoken by Mesmer himself: "This girl clearly needs the help of Hans Anton Mesmer!"

Rambo (d. Sylvester Stallone) - If you don't include the end credits, this film is 80 minutes long. It is about Rambo, who, quite frankly, doesn't want any part of it anymore. But then some people come in and say, "Hey, Rambo, can you help us?" He says okay, but they get kidnapped anyway, by people who are quite incredibly evil. So Rambo, with a small team of mercenaries, goes to rescue them. The End. And who wouldn't enjoy a movie like that? Well, if you have a problem with genuinely alarming levels of horrendously brutal violence, then I suppose you wouldn't. I did enjoy it, however. So there you go.

The Fearless Vampire Killers (d. Roman Polanski) - What would it be like if Roman Polanski decided to co-write, direct, and star in his own version of Abbott and Costello Meet Dracula? It would look exactly like this film. Polanski plays the bumbling assistant to a shamelessly mugging Jack MacGowran, and both of them are on the trail of a vampire in 19th century Transylvania, or there-abouts. What's strange about this movie is how beautiful it is, how stunning much of the imagery is, while all of it is in service to a pretty unfunny comedy. There was one bit of physical comedy (and essentially all of the comedy is physical) that I thought was good, but that's it. One other thing in the plus column is Sharon Tate, as the woman who must be rescued from the vampire's clutches. She was utterly beautiful, of course, but there was a sweetness to her, as well. And although she doesn't have all that much to do in this film, it appeared that she had talent. Alas.


Greg said...

Greetings fellow taveller .

So work is murder huh? Are you an assassin?

bill r. said...

Yeah. What I do, no. Quit being silly.

Boy, I sure talked about a lot of movies, huh!?

Greg said...

I guess so. I kind of got stopped dead in my tracks by the word "taveling."

kassy said...

I feel guilty for saying it but if I haven't seen a movie then I like reading a capsule review, because it gives me just enough info to decide to see something without exposing me to too much. The in-depth pieces that you and Greg and everyone else write so beautifully I save to read after I watch something; I'll have conversations with you in my head: you thought that? well I thought this and ohhh I liked that bit too. Oh dear, now I sound a little crazy.

bill r. said...

Greg - It's a hell of a word, isn't it?

Kassy - Yes, but only a little. Anyone who watches a movie after reading a review has that conversation. At least you don't think "Oh, you thought that? Well then I'm going to kill you..."

Ed Howard said...

I know it's pointless arguing comedy, but though I generally find Billy Wilder hit or miss, One, Two, Three is absolutely hilarious. It takes a little while to pick up steam at the outset, but once it does I find it irresistable. It's all pitched so fast, so frenetic, and Cagney is relentless, charging through the film, yelling and stomping around. It's not really funny in the sense that it has great jokes — though the jokes are fun — as it's just madcap and increasingly hysterical, always threatening to fall apart completely. There's so much happening one thing after another that it's an assault on the senses. It's a pileup of absurd incidents and characters. Pamela Tiffin is pretty great in this too.

The only other film you review here that I've seen is Code Unknown, but I agree with you about that one, so that's boring. Very good movie; not quite Haneke's best but the beginning of what I'd consider his peak period. If his earlier films were surface provocations, this one delves into much deeper, more substantial territory.

bill r. said...

Ed - Sorry, but I don't remember laughing once at ONE, TWO, THREE. Granted, I saw it more than a year ago, so maybe I did laugh, but not much, anyway. That sort of frantic, madcap slapstick is incredibly hard to pull off, and to me it always feels like Wilder believed that the effort was enough. Just being madcap was funny -- funny things didn't need to happen, or be said.

And you haven't seen THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY!? Get on that, man!

Paul Clairmont said...

Bill, I agree with you about ONE, TWO, THREE. It takes an awful lot of self deception to think that all the yelling and door slamming are funny for more than a minute or two.

I saw it on a double feature with IRMA LA DOUCE. Absolute torture.

bill r. said...

Robert, I don't want to say people who find ONE TWO THREE funny are deceiving themselves, but I'll be damned if I can see what they're seeing. Yelling and slamming doors...that about sums it up.

Adam Ross said...

I actually saw GHOSTS OF MISSISSIPPI in the theater, and really all I remember of it is a terrible scene where James Woods confronts the prosecutor in the bathroom during a recess. Wouldn't you think there's some kind of safeguard to keep the accused from meeting up with the prosecutor in the bathroom during a murder trial?

Marilyn said...

"From what I can tell, Takashi Miike's fans spend their time congratulating themselves for having the stomach to sit through his films."

Great, great line. However, you would be surprised to know that he did a horror/comedy/musical that will confound your expectations about his: The Happiness of the Katakuris. Check it out.

I thought the Polanski film was quite funny, if just a teeny bit long in belaboring the inn jokes. Wonderful film. Same with Code Unknown, a real masterpiece. And I totally concur about One, Two, Three.

bill r. said...

Adam - You'd think so, wouldn't you? Especially something as high profile as that case. But I guess in the South, we do things...a little differently. Or something. Probably not, though. There are probably federal laws about it.

Thank you, Marilyn. I was curious about HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKTURIS, until I tried to sit through Miike's THE BIRD PEOPLE OF CHINA, which is considerably less alarming than his usual fare. It was also considerably more tedious, and I couldn't finish it. However, if you think I should give KATAKURIS a shot, then a shot I shall give it.

Marilyn said...

Katakuris is based on a Korean film called The Quiet Family, which I found less enjoyable that Miike's effort.

Rick Olson said...

I saw "Happiness of the Katakuris." I generally liked it, although it is extremely strange. At the time, I had no idea who Takashi Miike was.

I am one of those who -- although I can sit through extreme, brutal violence like "Rambo", I think it's usually pointless, and I don't like the ethical implications. I thought "Rambo" to be pointless and ethically suspect, and just downright stupid, though in my time I've enjoyed stupid, ethically-suspect movies with the best of them. I love the "Die Hard" movies, for instance. Go figure.

And absolutely stunning pic of Sharon Tate.

bill r. said...

What's unethical about RAMBO? It creates villains about as evil as you could imagine, and then slaughters them in the name of releasing very decent people who were being tortured and murdered. It's a good time at the flickers, all around!

Rick Olson said...

It's the whole "propping up the American enterprise" thing, you know, American foreign military intervention? Rambo is such an icon of American meddling in other cultures, many times violently ... and not to mention the other side of the tale, where the missionaries are meddlesome, do-gooders, dedicated to peace, which Rambo comes in and -- once again -- proves doesn't work. Violence, in the end, is the only thing that works ... it is actually redemptive, in some sense, which, to my way of thinking, is an ethically suspect idea.

Plus, I thought it was stupid even by action movie standards even, in fact, by Sylvester Stallone movie standards, which is really saying something.

Of course, as always, ymmv, my friend.

Bob Turnbull said...

I was going to suggest "Bird People of China", but it looks like that didn't quite grab you...One of Miike's slowest films, but I thought it was actually quite lovely. "Happiness Of The Katakuris" is definitely more up your alley I think (if it isn't, then I think you're done with Miike...). I disagree with your line about having to stomach his films, though, since many of them aren't like "Visitor Q" (which I have yet to see). I enjoy his yakuza films - he uses music very well for some scenes and has his actors do over the top crazy in really fun ways, but it certainly may not be for you. I did also like his foray into J-Horror "One Missed Call" - nothing stunning, but it hit all the marks.

As baffled as you, Roger and Marilyn are at those who like "One, Two, Three", I'm equally baffled at how you don't see the energy ramping up and just creating a flurry of craziness and how it's all a lot of fun (and more than just slamming doors - there's a great deal of timing). But as stated, comedy is pretty damn subjective, so I'm not going to try to convince you you're wrong...Though you are. B-)

"Code Unknown" is still my fave Haneke so far, but I haven't delved too deep.