Sunday, December 11, 2011


The Lady Vanishes (Alfred Hitchcock, 1938) 76
Clever, endlessly entertaining black comedy/political thriller hybrid about a woman who disappears mysteriously during a train ride and the younger pair who are determined to find her. So basically it's like Flightplan except not a festering piece of shit.

Lady Vengeance (Chan-Wook Park, 2006) 56
And so it ends, not with a bang but a whimper. My friend Alex said it best: "It seems like they made this as an excuse to be pretty." While this in itself is not a bad reason to make a film, and it certainly is good-looking, that pesky "story" thing should also be given some thought. Oldboy combined gorgeous visuals with a existence-shakingly powerful narrative; Mr. Vengeance, though lesser, also managed to be successful on both fronts. This one, even taken on its own merits, is not as satisfying. Its fragmented structure is interesting, but it gets too tangled up in itself. I'm not an imperceptive guy, and there were places here where I felt like Park was specifically trying to beat around the bush instead of just TELLING me what happened. Also, I can't quite put my finger on it, but the group vengeance scene, in addition to being far too long and drawn-out and inappropriately played for comic effect, has something very off-putting about it. Sure, the whole trilogy is dark and mean-spirited and violent, but there was something about this that just did NOT feel right, and that certainly taints the film. So, yeah. It's flawed. Like crazy. Nonetheless, it IS entertaining and it IS pretty. I'd never go so far as to call it a bad film, but it just can't hold a candle to what came before.

La Femme Nikita (Luc Besson, 1990) 77
It's rare to see a film this flashy also have the appropriate amount of substance to back it up. For all its action movie stylings, La Femme Nikita is really just a glorified character piece. That it's successful in both regards makes it both highly entertaining and emotionally rewarding. What emerges is a very strong, assured piece of filmmaking. Besson has an appealing eye for aesthetics, and the visuals alone probably would have been enough for me to be decently satisfied by the film (the blue-tinted robbery scene that kickstarts the film is especially memorable), but it always goes one better and actually has something happening onscreen to complement the eye candy. The somewhat episodic story is deliberately paced, but engaging. I had no trouble whatsoever getting involved in Nikita's situation, in her actions and in her psychology. She's an appealing character given a very strong performance by a highly appealing actress. It's ... hell, it all just works. It's not an unqualified success, mind you. There are small gripes here and there, as there often are, but it's certainly not something I'd be bothered by watching again.

La Haine (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1995) 80
A gritty, powerful examination of violence and prejudice in the Parisian slums. One of the things that makes it work so well is its overarching sense of universality: although Vinz, Said, and Hubert are compelling individuals, one gets the feeling that this could have been an identical film even if it had focused on three completely different people. This, more than anything, speaks worlds about the hell these three young men inhabit. La Haine is at once a breath of fresh air and a sobering slap to the face: despite being stylish and technically proficient, it never glamorizes its brutality, and in opting for a character- rather than plot-driven structure (it's essentially a-day-in-the-life, following these guys around) it gives a scary and probably fairly accurate depiction of the sorts of things that happen in the projects on a day-to-day basis. Upon finishing it, it struck me as a film I want to see again very soon: not necessarily because I found it entertaining, but because of how artfully made it is, and how intricately detailed. I felt that, even having paid close attention, I hadn't gotten everything there was to get; that there are layers here, and repeated peeling back will only make the film stronger and more commendable. And even on the off chance that this isn't the case, what I got out of it the first time was tremendous enough just to make me want to see it again for the same experience.

Layer Cake (Matthew Vaughn, 2004) 44
My credo with films like this: the resolution has to be satisfying enough to justify the heavy lifting it makes you do in order to get there. The thing with Layer Cake is, I didn't just dislike the ending. I actively hated it. The ending is so bad that it takes an okayish, if incredibly twisty and convoluted, drug/gangster movie and turns it completely against itself. To go into detail would be to divulge some pretty huge spoilers, so I'll avoid it as best I can, but let it be said that the final moments of this film are so pointless and misguided that it undermines everything that's come before it. "I went through that, and this is what the film gives me?" It's infuriating. This is not an "easy" film: there's a small army of characters, each taking part in a myriad of crisscrossing plotlines that often become difficult to keep up with. You have to pay close attention. Luckily, I was told before seeing this that scrutiny was necessary. So I watched it attentively, traced its coiling story back until it made sense, and tried to follow the best I could. And in general I appreciate a film that makes me do this: it keeps me on my feet, keeps me interested. And, to be honest, Layer Cake handles itself fairly well. You spend the entire movie feeling like it could turn out to be a decent, if minor, triumph. But then it flips you the bird, spits in your face, and goes on its merry way. And I have to wonder why. What good could the filmmakers possibly have seen in this conclusion? In essence, the film does the same thing to itself that it does to its protagonist: screws over something perfectly acceptable, and emerges irreparably damaged because of it. Huh.

Let the Right One In (Tomas Alfredson, 2008) 81
It's something of a miracle that this film even exists. The vampire genre is so old, so worn out, and so cliched that I thought I never wanted to see another. But here's a film that effortlessly makes the vampire yarn seem fresh, exciting, and wonderful again. I honestly did not think it could be done. I think its biggest asset is its restraint: by not going for the throat (yes, pun intended) like many other films would, the story is allowed to unfold on its own terms and slowly and methodically engulf its viewers. And it's a story that works impressively well on a variety of levels: it's at once a movie about the pains of adolescence, a fledgling romance, and of course a girl-next-door with a dark and gory secret. How the film winds all of these elements up into a single package is delightful, and the directions it chooses to go in are as unexpected as they are satisfying. This is a dark film, yes, and creepy, but it's also surprisingly touching, sweet, and involving. I cared greatly about Oskar and Eli and hoped constantly that the film would lead them to a resolution both true to its tone and worthy of everything that had come before. It does, and watching them get there is one of the most pleasurable first-time viewings I've had in quite some time. I gather that the DVD will be released on March 10. I'll be there when it comes out.

Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944) 49
A very, very dated World War II statement that never really rises above its central one-location conceit. I didn't really care for it the first time I watched it, but the second time it's just -- pardon the description -- totally dry, if only for the fact that there are no surprises left to be had. It's the sort of thing where you get everything there is to get the first time; re-watching it simply isn't a rewarding exercise.

The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006) 85
I don't actually have too much to say about this one at the moment; I think the film, still immensely topical in 2009 despite its subtle yet highly symbolic (and historically accurate) choice to set itself in 1984, can largely speak for itself. It's an emotionally complex but narratively straightforward account of the Stasi's iron-fisted rule over East Germany, although taken down to a personal level that makes it both absorbing and effective. Though Dreyman and his girlfriend are the ones being spied on, the film's real rewards come from Captain Wiesler, whose gradual transformation makes up the film's backbone and gives it its powerful emotional center. While some may argue that the sudden series of flash-fowards at the end is tiresome, I'd contend that the film finds just about the perfect bittersweet note to end on. Overall, it's a fine example of how a film can get by on character and story alone. Despite a conspicuous lack of car chases, explosions, and special effects, it nonetheless manages to be more captivating, suspenseful, and rewarding by far than most movies that would gladly rely on them. That, my friends, is significant.

The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock, 1926) 63
Atmospheric, well orchestrated silent Hitchcock. It's very much a product of its time and can really only be watched for what it is (both a good thing and a bad thing), but it's easy to see based on its merits alone why Hitchcock found a name for himself really quickly.

Lost in Translation (Sofia Coppola, 2003) 92
Truly beautiful. I've never seen it so much as a relationship drama as I have a film about the life-affirming power of friendship in the face of loneliness and alienation. Because seriously, who cares if they slept with each other? Maybe they did, maybe they didn't; to dwell on the idea is to miss the true beauty of their relationship. Here are two people who manage against all odds to form a bond more powerful than most people will ever know. The ephemeral nature of their encounter is what makes the film so delightful and, at the same time, so sad: we know as well as they do that their friendship is confined to that hotel. They'll never see each other again. But the time they spend together is so genuine, so real, that it puts the vast majority of bored human interaction to shame. By all accounts, Bill Murray should've won an Oscar for this (damn you, Sean Penn -- Mystic River wasn't very good anyway). It's both his finest work ever and the best film he's ever been associated with. So few movies manage to be as mature, thoughtful, and full of insight as this one. While it does seem to become more wistful with each passing year, it also gets better every time I watch it.

The Loved One (Tony Richardson, 1965) 70
In many ways, The Loved One unfolds like a 60s prototype of the kind of film Sacha Baron Cohen or Parker and Stone would make today. There's a good deal of gleefully wicked, razor-sharp satire here, but it's punctuated with an uncomfortable propensity to underpin everything with unnecessary gross-out gags. And no matter how funny the filmmakers might think these are, they can't help but undermine the sharper and more pointed material. For every pitch-perfect, spot-on scene like the one where the pet undertakers shoot the dead bird off in a rocket, there's an off-putting one like the disgusting and not even slightly amusing montage of the morbidly obese Mrs. Joyboy stuffing her face with food. Even so, I'd say the good handily outweighs the bad. It takes balls to even make a movie this irreverent, and even more balls to market it as "the film with something to offend everyone" (which ... yeah, it probably is). I'm sure as time goes by I'll come to forget the icky stuff and remember it fondly for what it, for the most part, is: a fearless, jet-black comedy about the funeral industry that is still more or less unique in its approach and, indeed, has more than its fair share of thrills to balance out the filmmakers' somewhat indulgent tendency to just go off the rails completely.

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