Monday, December 12, 2011


Casshern (Kazuaki Kiriya, 2004) 27
Apparently Kazuaki Kiriya has never heard of visual excess. It's important for a film to have a well defined visual style; necessary, one might even say. Like all components in filmmaking, though, there is a limit, and at that limit exists a line that should not be crossed. Casshern nonchalantly ignores that line early on and spends the next 117 dreary minutes becoming one of the most tedious, overdirected pieces of crap I have seen in a good long while. It's about time, too; rewatching all these favorites, I was starting to fall under some delusion of universal goodness. And of course it's not enough that Kiriya's D-grade video-game-on-acid aesthetic is so damn pervasive that it's impossible to tell what the hell is going on: no, we need an equally impenetrable story about war and genetic mutants to really seal the deal. The unfortunate thing is, there are some good ideas here. In the right hands, I have no doubt this could be a compelling sci-fi story. But Kiriya clearly has no damn clue how to handle any of this, and the result is a preachy, pretentious mess. I really wish I had not been born with the compulsion to follow movies out to their bitter end, because I would have loved to turn this off: by the end of the first hour, I was bored out of my mind; by 90 minutes, I was paying more attention to the timer on my DVD player than I was to the film; by two hours, I was just praying for quick and painless death. There are bad films, and then there are bad films. This fits comfortably into the latter category. Even in the realm of terrible films, though, you have to watch out for your blurbs. Maybe, as the case says, it is "better than both Matrix sequels put together." That still doesn't mean it's any good at all.

Che (Steven Soderbergh, 2008) 14
Look, I've seen some bad films in my time -- films I wouldn't touch again with a 10-foot pole if you paid me, but I reserve a special kind of hatred for Steven Soderbergh's bloated, dull, and damn near unwatchable Che. Let me preface this by saying my assessment has absolutely nothing to do with Mr. Guevara himself, and absolutely everything to do with the way Soderbergh chooses to depict his life. If you take this film as your only source of information, Che Guevara will be nothing more to you than a man who sits around in various jungles and coughs a lot. There's no conflict here. There's no story. This movie is so damn boring I can't even begin to put it into words. This in itself is a cardinal sin: if you're going to make a movie about anything, at least have the decency to make it somewhat interesting. But it doesn't stop there, oh no. Not only is Che far more excruciatingly uninteresting than the vast majority of other films, indie or mainstream, it is also over four hours long. I did not know it was possible to make a four-hour feature film wherein nothing happens, but I have now seen the light (or the heart of an immense darkness, depending). Yeah, sure, maybe Benicio del Toro gives a good performance. Yeah, sure, maybe the movie is skillfully shot and assembled. Yeah, sure, maybe Matt Damon does have a brief Spanish-speaking cameo. I DON'T CARE (well, actually I kinda do about that last one). I could have watched my favorite movie two and a half times in the stretch it took me to get through this. On the bright side, there was an intermission. On the not-so-bright, the second half is significantly worse than the first. Considering the first is already a step or two below watching paint dry, I'd definitely beware those last two hours. You might slip into a coma. Though really, it'd probably be a hell of a lot more interesting.

Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006) 86
Proof positive that good movies should never be watched only once. Before now, the only time I had seen Children of Men was during its theatrical run. I liked it, but it didn't register in my head as anything other than just a good, solid sci-fi film. Who knows what happened in the two intervening years, but upon rewatching this, I was floored. Absolutely fucking blown away. This was the same film, unquestionably, but somehow this time it was just better. So, so, so much better. First off, I don't remember it being this emotionally harrowing; I remember it being dark and bleak, but nowhere near as affecting. And second, everything you've heard about this film's cinematography is true; I just can't even comprehend how they pulled some of this shit off. Though there are several amazing sequences (the "egg-spitting scene," for lack of a better description, being one), the now-famous six-minute warzone take near the end of the film is one of the most impressive things I have ever seen. I'd say it has to be seen to be believed, but I've watched that scene by itself several times and I still don't believe it. Just like how I still don't believe I could have seen this the first time and not just gone apeshit for it. It's fuckin' amazing.

Chinatown (Roman Polanski, 1974) 92
I saw this at The Guild two days before Polanski got arrested in Switzerland. I feel strangely guilty, like my doing so upset something in the cosmos. But hey, whatever happens to the man himself, nothing can erase the fact that this stylish, edgy, bleak-as-all-hell film is just stone-cold brilliant (and stone-cold is, indeed, the right way to describe it).

The City of Lost Children (Jean-Pierre Jeunet & Marc Caro, 1995) 79
Take what I said in my capsule for The Apartment about never watching good films only once, only substitute "weird" for "depressing." I watched The City of Lost Children once about three years ago, was taken aback by how beautiful its visuals were, and was left cold because it was just too damn weird for the mood I was in. Now I've come back to it. And having seen Jeunet and Caro's other collaboration, the equally bizarre and delightful (and maybe even slightly better) Delicatessen, I rewatched this fully prepared to embrace whatever strageness it might throw my way. Predictably, I found it to be quite excellent. I love being able to say things like "there's nothing else quite like it," and this much is obvious if you've ever seen the film. "Hallucinatory" and "surreal" don't even begin to describe the tripped-out otherworld created by this film, but this time it was a place I actually wanted to be. I became involved with the characters, was thrilled by how original the story was. It's still definitely not something for all tastes, but I'm glad I can finally say it's something for mine. I'm happy I finally listened to that voice in the back of my head telling me to give it another shot. It's awesome, and no fan of sci-fi or intriguing foreign films should go without seeing it.

Clean, Shaven (Lodge Kerrigan, 1993) 55
I know why this has been called a great film. I see exactly what Kerrigan is trying to do. And now that I see this, it's time for him to move on and make a better movie. Its problem is that it plays out more like an art school exercise than it does a feature meant to be viewed by real people. Sure, as a psych student I can attest that it probably is the closest filmic representation of schizophrenia yet put onscreen, but that doesn't necessarily make it interesting. It just makes it very, very difficult. And I have nothing against difficult films. Some of the greatest movies ever made are notorious for being such. It's just that Clean, Shaven, much like schizophrenia itself, provides no in for the unafflicted. It's an isolated entity, cold and detached not necessarily by its own choosing but just by nature. That's what makes it so hard to warm up to. If all of the action is on the inside and we the viewers have no way of getting in there, what's left for us? An unsettling but ineffective curiosity. Oh well. Even still, I wish we'd watched this in my abnormal psych class instead of Diary of an Anorexic or whatever; this is much better.

A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971) 100
I've said it once before: there are exactly five films I've seen that I would give a perfect score. This is one of them. Stanley Kubrick was an inhumanly gifted filmmaker, and he's responsible for some of the greatest movies ever produced, but this is hands-down his greatest achievement. It's also his most notorious. Over the last four decades, the film has amassed almost as many detractors as it has avid supporters. And while the naysayers' points may be valid, I will defend this film to the ends of the earth and back. The one argument I will not buy, though, is that it's just an empty, excessive excuse to shock its audience. Kubrick's approach is very forceful, but to accuse him of doing it without a solid agenda completely undermines the fact that this film dishes up lots of provocative philosophical questions. There is quite a bit to chew on here. Alex is an evil, sadistic sociopath, but isn't what the "good, clean" society/government does to him even more evil and more sadistic? Is robbing a person of his free will not an even more cruel, violent act than anything Alex does for fun? Isn't the capacity for decision what makes a person truly human? This is just scratching the surface. These are not empty, easy questions. This is a film with something to say. Many find the way it says these things objectionable, but I assert that it has to be unrelenting to make the impact that it does. It's unquestionably one of the nastiest, most vicious and unforgiving movies ever made, and many will hate it for this reason, but I think it's all the better for it. And even stripped to its basics, it's still wonderful: it's a boldly original story very well-told, Malcolm McDowell gives one of film's great performances as little Alex, and Kubrick's talent for direction and cinematography is -- as always -- unparalleled (the calm, surreal, tripped-out way he filmed this creates an atmosphere quite unlike any other in film history). This is why I love film. Everything's here, and it's perfect.

The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, 1974) 77
A very, very sad movie. It's not at all what I expected: from the DVD case and, indeed, from the film's reputation, I was anticipating a highly-charged political thriller about surveillance and bugging. What I got, however, was a meditative, deliberately-paced character study about a very lonely man consumed with guilt about the immorality of his profession. Frankly, it's a better movie for it. In a performance that can only be described as stunning, Gene Hackman basically sells the film: Harry Caul is a complex, aching, utterly believable individual; the emotional valence of the entire story rests on his shoulders, and Hackman knocks it out of the park. Coppola's script is entirely in tune with Hackman's strengths, too: instead of placing the character in the middle of a dangerous situation like most other films would, it sets things up so that Harry Caul is the conflict. His psychology, not the titular conversation, is the main focus, and we delve so deeply into it that, by the film's excellent final minutes, we're not entirely sure what's real and what's fictional, what's fact and what's paranoia. It's a clever little setup, and in many ways it makes the proceedings even more tense. In a society driven by spying and surveillance, who can you trust? Can you even trust yourself? And even if you're just an impartial third party, are you still responsible for the ramifications of the information you're collecting? Coppola forces his audience to consider some very difficult questions, but -- like any skilled storyteller -- stops just short of answering them. Instead, he offers a quietly harrowing portrait of a man who is likewise unable to find these answers, and how it slowly but surely destroys him. Powerful stuff.

Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009) 39
An aggressively unpleasant film. Despite tirelessly searching for its entire runtime, there's just no fun in this thing for me. It's dark, oppressive, and off-putting (especially for a younger audience), but to what end? If you're going to have your main character endure such an ordeal, shouldn't she get something out of it? The film provides no evidence that little Coraline's life is going to be any different after this whole to-do than it was before. Her asshole, "you broke my favorite snowglobe" parents certainly haven't changed. So what could have, and should have, been a film about familial love and redemption and Wizard of Oz-style "there's no place like home"-ness inadvertently becomes a film about a neglected child who learns to appreciate that she's a neglected child. A lovely message, especially for the kiddos. Now in lifelike 3D, so they can almost touch the bitter reality! Despite being a harsh and unrewarding film, though, it's certainly a good-looking one: Selick's trademark stop-motion is as eerily effective as ever, and the aforementioned 3D -- to the extent that I even noticed it (it was much more subtle than a lot of other big-screen 3D fare) -- was well integrated, if inessential. But really, that's not going to win me over. Coraline is a dreary experience. Big-screen escapism is dependent on there being something worthwhile to escape to. If an ugly, dissatisfying story wherein the only compassionate character is a mangy, dead-looking alley cat is your idea of solid entertainment, be my guest. I should have stayed home. There's no place quite like it.

Crows Zero (Takashi Miike, 2007) 62
An electrifying, if sometimes muddled, adrenaline-shot of nihilism. There's something about the simplicity of this story that just appeals to some sort of masculine ideal. Quite simply, this is a film about no-holds-barred physical dominance that seems to take place in some stylish alternate universe where literally the only conflict is which high school punk can kick the most ass and take the most names. As such, it's basically just two hours of tough guys beating the shit out of each other in the hopes that they will become the ultimate badass. And it works. It's exhilarating. It's when the film tries to complicate matters with useless subplots (in no way is the brain aneurysm thing necessary at all) that it starts to lose its edge, sometimes feeling like a couple unrelated movies cobbled together (and unfortunately this happens a bit too much in the last 45 minutes or so). On the whole, though, it's a success: anyone with a passing familiarity with Japanese cinema knows that Miike is a dude who knows what he's doing, and the film exudes style and badass. Despite its almost nonstop violence, it's not hard to watch. It crackles on a special kind of energy that holds its thrills at a satisfying level throughout. And really, you've gotta admire a movie ballsy enough to deliver a moral, then turn right around and say, "But fuck it, let's rock."

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher, 2008) 82
I don't get it. I don't understand the already-huge backlash against this. This is a wonderful film, one that affected me profoundly on an emotional level that very few movies even get close to. For a long time, David Fincher has been one of the best directors out there; whether his films are good (Se7en, The Game) or not (Fight Club, Panic Room), they're always directed with a dizzying proficiency that puts most others to shame. Benjamin Button is no different -- from its first frame to its last, it's visually stunning in ways few other films this year have been. And the story itself is wonderful: it's NOT your run-of-the-mill Hollywood romance, and it's the implications of this unusualness that give it such an emotional potency. The acting, likewise, is stellar: Brad Pitt once again proves that he's one of the most underrated actors out there (the man can ACT, dammit!), while Cate Blanchett -- as is her custom -- is a superb counterpart. The majority of the film's heartstring-tugging rests on her shoulders, and in the film's final act, she's really something to behold. So all in all, I don't buy any of the complaints I've been hearing. It's not too long (it's 167 minutes; lengthy, sure, but I think it requires that length), the pacing isn't flawed (does it not match the goals of the story very well?), it doesn't have "too many morals" (wait, this is a complaint?). It's just a fine, fine piece of cinema. It's different, it's striking, it's entertaining, and it's moving. The amount of people who don't seem to see it this way is, to my way of thinking, the most "curious" thing about it.

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