Monday, December 12, 2011


The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) 94
I've always been fascinated by how quick and skillful the Joker is for a man who supposedly has no plan. I imagine it would take some firepower indeed to blow up an entire hospital, but somehow the guy manages to rig it all up in under an hour. What a resourceful son of a bitch. In other news, this movie is still fucking fantastic. I have now seen this film four times. It has been out six and a half months. I almost never rewatch movies with that sort of frequency. Something about this one just compels me to. I live in constant fear of the day its follow-up inevitably gets released; even if Christopher "God" Nolan is onboard again, there's no way it's going to be anywhere near as good as this. I mean, how could it be? What sort of villain could ever compare to Heath Ledger's Joker? What sort of tragic story arc would ever measure up to the decline and fall of Harvey Dent? Nothing. Nolan may be divinity among directors, but some water is just too fickle to walk on. But you gotta admit, he brought it on himself. We love him oh so dearly for it, but -- as they say -- no good deed goes unpunished.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (Scott Derrickson, 2008) 32
I finally have a definitive answer: "Klaatu barada nikto" is, in fact, extraterrestrial for "really fucking bad remake." Words can hardly do justice to how atrocious this truly is. The only reason I'm springing for the 32 instead of anything lower is because John Cleese, no matter how small of a part, is a badass. But the rest of this is trash. Keanu Reeves gives a performance that probably would've been thrown out of a Keanu Reeves impersonation contest for being too wooden, Will Smith's offspring is constantly annoying, and Jennifer Connelly spends the entire time looking like she's wondering, "Wait a minute, I can actually act. What the HELL am I doing HERE?" Oh, and the story sucks. Nothing happens. Until the end, which isn't actually an ending because it doesn't resolve anything. Man, this was terrible.

Deep Red (Dario Argento, 1975) 59
I don't know. I guess I'm just not cut out for this Argento fellow. I don't want to say the movies are bad, really, because they aren't. I just don't like them very much. Deep Red straddles an awkward line between absurd played-for-laughs humor (a tiny car with a sinking passenger seat) and moments of pointlessly excessive gore (a man's head -- unnecessarily, I might add -- gets run over and crushed by a car). Truthfully, I can understand the appeal; it just doesn't tickle my fancy all that much. At least the soundtrack is bangin'.

The Devil's Backbone (Guillermo del Toro, 2001) 66
Let's face it: if you make one of the best movies ever, it really doesn't matter how good the rest of your filmography is; everything else is going to seem like a bit of a letdown. Such is the sorry fate of Guillermo del Toro, whose The Devil's Backbone is a satisfying exercise in wartime ghostliness that nonetheless has absolutely nothing on his later triumph Pan's Labyrinth. Which isn't to say the two films have that much in common: aside from sharing a timeframe and dipping into themes of youthful isolation, they're very much distinct from one another and by all means should be experienced on their respective terms. It's just easy to point out what this film lacks that del Toro's later endeavor would eventually correct: the somewhat unexpectedly low chill factor, the absence of a particularly detestable villain, and a protagonist who is likable but never fully capable of being embraced emotionally. Still, it's very much a good film: the story is unusual and well told, and del Toro has a knack for peppering the proceedings with alluringly odd details (the undetonated warhead is, by all means, both badass and symbolic). In the end, though, it still feels like a well-placed stepping stone in the career of its maker than it does a definitive Statement: even though the journey itself can often be thrilling, it's really more about that final destination.

District 9 (Neill Blomkamp, 2009) 46
Again, the advance buzz baffles me. This has been heralded as "surprisingly original," "a novel creation," "ingenious and creative" -- the whole gamut. And not by people who don't know what they're talking about. This kind of talk gets a fella like me excited, see, and it makes me all the more disappointed when the damn thing turns out to be exactly like dozens upon dozens of movies I've seen before. This could have been something special: its mockumentary-style intro flirts with the kind of excitement and originality that, had the film sustained it, could've made this into an exceptional slice of sci-fi. Unfortunately, the clever stylistics go away as the story unfolds and we're left with what I found to be a very pedestrian shit-blows-up action movie. Far from being a captive audience, I spent much of the last hour rather bored. Even worse than that, the script pretty severely loses focus as the affair rolls on. What exactly gets resolved at the end? Who's the real hero here? How is the nutty Nigerian gun cult even necessary to the proceedings? And why, oh god, why does something as potentially intelligent as this feel the need to cop fighting machines from Transformers in order to get cheap thrills? So, I'm sorry. It seems like I'm a dissenting vote on this one, but I was far from impressed. There's nothing here that hasn't been done before a whole lot better, and it's just depressing to see something that could be thoughtful and poignant (obviously they're shooting for an apartheid allegory) streamline itself into a loud, handheld-ridden actionfest just to turn a buck.

Do the Right Thing (Spike Lee, 1989) 70
A provocative, if not especially surprising portrait of race relations in late-80s Brooklyn (and, I'd be willing to wager, inner-city anywhere in 2009). I appreciate what Lee is doing here, and the cinematography in particular is out of this world (you can almost feel the heat and sweat pouring out of the screen), though I do feel as if more recent films like La Haine and City of God cover similar territory more successfully. Still, the cut it makes is a deep one and I don't think anyone's going to argue that it's a very important film. Also: the opening credits sequence is among the best I've ever seen.

Doubt (John Patrick Shanley, 2008) 72
All told, this was probably my 11th favorite film of 2008. In other words, this is the one that got screwed for inclusion on the illustrious best-list. So it goes. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that it's a very small film. That is, unlike Benjamin Button or Slumdog or any of the other late-year Oscar hopefuls, it seems to exist in its own self-contained universe. It doesn't have much to say about anything outside its bubble; it's strictly concerned with its characters. This isn't a bad thing, mind you; it just wants a bit for that all-encompassing "oooh, this is life!"-type universality that Fincher's film embodies. That being said, everything about the production is very good. I know the story is supposed to be open-ended and ambiguous about answering the central conflict, but in my mind at least there's very little "doubt" about which series of events actually occurred (and, to my way of thinking, the film works better this way). Just the way Shanley presents his characters (Streep in particular) really makes me opt strongly for one particular viewpoint. But hey, there are clues a-plenty for either interpretation. That's why it's called Doubt, you see. I could be wrong. But I don't think so. See it and decide for yourself. It's a good one.

Down by Law (Jim Jarmusch, 1986) 72
It's very easy for me to see how someone could get really turned off by Jarmusch. He's definitely an acquired taste. Not only are his films very slow, but they also have an odd sense of humor and very rarely arrive at any sort of conventional resolution. Still, I don't know why, but I really like the guy. Every one of his films I have seen has wooed me in some way or other, and Down by Law is no exception. This is one of those movies where the experience is far more satisfying than any sort of synopsis. Really, all that happens is that three deadbeats get thrown in jail, hang out in jail for a while, and then escape to a bizarre deus ex machina, but nonetheless I still had a lot of fun watching it. Roberto Benigni, an almost complete unknown at the time, is a hoot as the ingratiatingly optimistic Italian tourist, and it's always interesting to see Tom Waits show up in a film, regardless of what it might be. So, yeah. I don't know. If you like Jarmusch, give this one a try. It's really entertaining. If you don't like Jarmusch, this isn't going to do anything to change your mind. And if you don't know Jarmusch, I'd rather you hit up Stranger Than Paradise first. But be sure to come back to this one. It's a goodie.

Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi, 2009) 77
It's easy to get excited when a director manages to make a good film from an oft-abused formula. It really is. And this explains why Drag Me to Hell has gotten almost ridiculously hyperbolic reviews. All of us geeky film buffs are just happy to see a horror film that not only doesn't suck, but is actually rather excellent. Just don't let the 93% on RottenTomatoes usually reserved for Important Films trick you into believing it's something greater than what it is. Drag Me to Hell is a schlocky gross-out horror flick and nothing more. It just also happens to be a really fucking good one. I don't know what else to say about it, really. If you're a fan of the genre, you'll probably love it. If you're not, you probably won't. If you're like me and don't really swing one way or the other, you'll be pleasantly surprised by how clever, funny, icky, and sometimes flat-out exciting it can be. Bravo, Mr. Raimi. Bravo. You've just absolved yourself for Spider-Man 3.

Drugstore Cowboy (Gus Van Sant, 1989) 87
A superb addiction drama. Gus Van Sant is an eclectic and fascinating filmmaker, and over his career he's traversed the very good (Milk, My Own Private Idaho), the all right (Elephant, Paranoid Park), and the just plain awful (Last Days, the Psycho remake). After years of digging, I have finally found the masterpiece I always knew he had in him. Who would've thought it'd turn out to be one of the first films he ever made? This is one of those godsend movies where everything falls beautifully into place: the very straightforward story, despite being nothing we haven't seen before, is never anything less than engrossing; the performances -- especially Matt Dillon's, which should have at least been nominated for an Oscar, if not awarded the trophy -- are tremendous; and the preaching and moralizing, which always inevitably creep into this sort of affair, are more or less nonexistent (which makes the proceedings all the more potent). It's grimly amusing when it needs to be, suitably tense when its situations call for it, breathtakingly poignant at all the right moments (there's a scene where Dillon is talking to a secretary about entering a methodone program that shows more truth and humanity over the course of two minutes than some entire films have), and just about as satisfying overall as it could possibly be. I loved this film.

Duplicity (Tony Gilroy, 2009) 75
About a year and a half ago, Tony Gilroy -- in his then-directorial debut -- brought us a deliciously complex and twisty little thriller called Michael Clayton, which even in a bumper-crop year like 2007 was one of the best films around. If anything, his follow-up Duplicity ably demonstrates that the strengths of his previous effort were no fluke. This is, much like the Clooney vehicle, a structurally unusual but deadly intelligent film that is at once remarkably well written and possesses the power to keep its audience guessing up until the very end. We're still deeply enmeshed in the corporate world, although this time Gilroy treats the affair more like an extended Spy vs. Spy, thus making the goings-on even more playful and enjoyable. So yeah, clearly I liked the film a lot. I understand how the timeline and the barrage of plot twists/unexpected developments could become wearying for some, but I was able to adjust to Gilroy's speed without too much difficulty, and as a result I had a lot of fun. The interplay between his hero and heroine works really well, the central "secret" is just ludicrous enough to lend it some warped sense of credibility (an important aspect of the story, it turns out), and the pieces just seem to fit together into something both satisfying and clever. The year is young, so it's hard to tell how this will fare in the long run, but for right now one thing's for sure: in the typical spring doldrums, Duplicity is a welcome reprieve. That, and Clive Owen is infinitely more badass than George Clooney. Just sayin'.

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