Sunday, December 11, 2011


Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock, 1936) 67
Very old-school Hitchcock doesn't really work as an engaging suspense tale (it's clear he hadn't hit his stride just yet, although the signs are definitely there), but is nonetheless a skillfully made and entertaining piece of work. It also proves once again that the man had an incredibly bizarre sense of humor, as when a meeting between two criminals is halted so that they can stare into an aquarium tank and remark that a tortoise looks like it has a mustache. It's also unusually short, which I suppose was customary for the time (what with those pesky film stocks and all), so that doesn't allow it a whole lot of time to breathe or create any lasting mood, but that's all right. It's a fun movie. Despite its central plot points of bombing and death, it's light entertainment. It's enjoyable to watch. Though armed with the knowledge that Hitchcock would spend the next 25 years making films that were far superior, I still liked it quite a bit.

Scandal Sheet (Phil Karlson, 1952) 63
A fun, kind of nondescript but well-made film noir. Although it doesn't really give me any sort of incentive to revisit it, it entertains while it's unspooling, which means it does its job right.

Scotland, Pa. (Billy Morrissette, 2001) 69
How's this for a hook: "1970s fast-food version of Macbeth with Christopher Walken as a vegetarian Macduff." If you're anything like me, this will have not only immediately migrated to the top of your must-see list, but you'll actually already be halfway to the video store (or Netflix queue, as the case may be). The good news is that it delivers on that promise, at least insofar as its conceit will allow. In the grand scheme of Macbeth adaptations, I'd say this is somewhere in between Kurosawa's Throne of Blood (a classic, of course) and that post-apocalyptic Mad Max-style version my 10th grade English teacher showed us (which is incredibly bizarre and I still have no idea where she found it, because I can't). Morrissette manages something that, truthfully, has been tried a bazillion times and many fail at: being decently faithful to the Bard while still putting a clever, entertaining spin on one of his stories. By all accounts, Scotland, Pa. could have gone off the rails at any time; it never does, though, and as a result it becomes something of a small delight to watch. It's dryly funny in the only way that's appropriate for this sort of thing, and of course Christopher Walken is always fun to watch ("You've really done a lot with the place. Of course, the last time I was here there was a dead body in the fryilator!" has just entered the Movie Quote Hall of Fame). Familiarity with Shakespeare's play isn't necessary, of course, but I imagine it's somewhat more fun if you are. Nonetheless, I find it hard to believe most people wouldn't be greatly entertained by this. It's a hoot.

Scream (Wes Craven, 1996) 79
Still fresh, clever, and funny after all these years.

Se7en (David Fincher, 1995) 96
It's a testament to Fincher's craft that I still feel an overwhelming sense of dread while watching the scenes leading up to the conclusion, despite being all too aware of what happens. I don't know how many times I've seen this, but it always unfailingly puts me on edge. Maybe it isn't "scary" in a typical horror sense, but it's unshakably disturbing in ways very few other films have ever managed to be. At least for me. Se7en is a film that crawls under my skin and stays there. It doesn't need to rely on cheap JUMP! moments or (east) buckets of blood: it instead gets by on creating one of the most oppressively gloomy atmospheres I can recall in film, racheting up the tension little by little, and delivering a gut-punch mostly unparalleled in mainstream film. Call it what you will; I think it's incredibly brilliant.

Seven Pounds (Gabriele Muccino, 2008) 47
Ick. Contrived, saccharine blah. It doesn't do anything you don't expect it to, and doesn't do any of these expected things interestingly (it attempts a nonlinear editing style to try to conceal the "big twist," even though we the not-stupid viewers basically have it figured out within 15 minutes). The only legitimate surprise is that it features what may in fact be the single most ridiculous scene involving a jellyfish I have ever watched. But you have to sit through, like, 95% of the movie before you get to that. Which is to say: not worth it.

Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954) 95
If Seven Samurai had been the only film Akira Kurosawa ever made, I have no doubt the man would still be regarded as one of the finest directors who ever lived. Even with his almost inconceivably brilliant filmography, this remains his best work: a 207-minute epic of honor and humanity that is still just as jaw-dropping today as it must have been 55 years ago. Rewatching this not too long after having endured Che, it struck me just how phenomenally well Kurosawa handles his three and a half hours. A film should only ever be as long as it needs to be, and if 207 minutes seems excessive at first, just sit down and watch the film. You will not know where the time went. This never gets dull even for an instant: the characters, large and small, are all excellently developed (and, as with all Kurosawa films in which he appears, Toshiro Mifune steals every scene he's in), the story feels utterly natural and logical, and of course the compositions themselves are never less than beautiful (though the man was prodigiously talented in all aspects of his art, I've always felt Kurosawa's biggest asset was his visual style). And I could go on and on, but I won't. I can't do it justice. You just have to see it and experience it for yourself. It's a great film. One of the best. And it only gets better each time you watch it.

Shadow of a Doubt (Alfred Hitchcock, 1943) 74
A uniformly nasty and often brilliant tale of familial suspicion that, unfortunately, suffers from an abrupt and overly Hollywood-ish ending that sort of robs the proceedings of its wicked edge. Still, the majority of it is excellent.

Shallow Grave (Danny Boyle, 1994) 66
A vicious, meanspirited little thriller. It works, though. You have to suspend a healthy amount of disbelief (without saying it's impossible or even implausible, I'm not entirely sure when the key event that leads to the conclusion could have happened), but once you let yourself go the film is entertaining enough to work on its own terms. It has a biting edge that may be just a little too dark for a lot of people, not to mention a cast of characters who are fundamentally despicable, but these things suit the material. The last thing a story like this calls for is a warm, cuddly treatment; Danny Boyle puts it on ice and lets it stay there. It's also an interesting historical curiosity: this was both the feature debut for the now Oscar-winning Boyle (it predates even his breakthrough Trainspotting by a couple of years), as well as one of the first screen appearances for Ewan McGregor. It's clear even from these humble beginnings that both men are quite talented, and it's fun to know where both ended up. Shallow Grave is quite a bit darker than anything I would've expected from such an early stage, but it's enjoyable nonetheless. Fun, you might even say, in the most macabre of senses.

The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980) 77
Tons and tons of goodwill and high regard over the past few years have made this into something of a classic, and while I do have to agree that it's an impressively strong film, I also have a few reservations. Certainly, to call it Kubrick's best (as many have done) is to do a horrendous injustice to his 1964-1971 holy trinity, and perhaps some of his lesser-known films as well. Let's face it: as a haunted house/ghost story, the film is almost a complete failure; there are elements of it sprinked throughout, but they're too half-baked and sporadic to seem consequential at all. Aided by Jack Nicholson's iconic but nonetheless over-the-top performance, though, where the film really excels is in its depiction of madness. It's eerie, claustrophobic, and chilling. Almost all of the credit for this, really, goes to Kubrick. The Shining has a weak script. Sorry, but it does. The direction, however, is among the most flawless in history. Kubrick was a notorious perfectionist and he'd re-shoot scenes ad nauseum until he got exactly what he wanted. This film was in production for almost a year and a half and, I believe, used more miles of film stock than any other movie ever made. It shows, and it's kind of brilliant. The film is sparkling, pristine, and technically flawless. (Really, don't ever debate the talent of Stanley Kubrick with me. You may not like the films, but it's impossible to deny the man was a genius -- one of the best -- at what he did.) So, despite its weaknesses, The Shining is a compulsively watchable movie. It's just so damn well made that I have to admire it. Sure, Kubrick made better films, but none of them strike me as being as quintessentially a "director showcase" as this one. That, far more than the story itself, makes it a must-see.

Sin Nombre (Cary Fukunaga, 2009) 90
One of the most affirming feelings for a movie buff is the awareness of having been exposed to something novel, to emerge from a theater knowing that you have just experienced greatness. Unfortunately, the more films one sees, the less often this occurs; but in the end it just serves to intensify the feeling when it does happen. Sin Nombre is one hell of a fine film. The last time I can remember leaving a theater with that same feeling in my gut was almost a year ago (and you know which film I'm talking about). It's about time I was reminded what it feels like. To the extent that the film is being marketed at all, which it isn't, I take issue with the approach: face-value synopses make this sound like a movie strictly about Latin American immigration to the United States. While this does constitute a large portion of the film, it is also among the most provocative, not to mention unflinching, meditations on the brutality of gang violence I have ever seen. But ultimately these two themes, which start out running parallel to each other, coil together in a way that makes them fundamentally inseparable. The ensuing story is satisfying on every level stories are capable of satisfying on. This is a dark, frightening, and forceful film, but it's also a hopeful one. There's beauty in nearly every shot, and despite the overwhelming grimness in which the proceedings are mired, it refuses not to take the good along with the bad. In addition to telling its story with a nearly flawless urgency, this quality also lends it a humanity that makes one's emotional investment in the characters all the more rewarding. The payoff, though rooted in an unmistakable inevitability, is profound and moving in ways I still have not found words for. Sin Nombre is a miraculous achievement: the directorial debut of an American filmmaker who no doubt has a long and fruitful career ahead of him, and for the moment by orders of magnitude the best film of 2009. I'll definitely let you know if I see a better one before December's over, but let's be realistic here: I wouldn't hold my breath.

Six-String Samurai (Lance Mungia, 1998) 53
I'd say it's maybe just a little too much of a good thing. It's all well and good that they set out to make an absurd, largely pointless comedy with random silly monsters and a bunch of crazy shit that isn't supposed to make sense. I'm totally cool with that. It's just ... you have to have enough of said crazy shit so that your story doesn't lose momentum. The first half of this film is fantastic: its hilarious, WTF-bomb-dropping approach worked so excellently for me that it was just about the most fun I'd had watching a film in forever. Unfortunately, though, instead of introducing new stuff as the story rolls on, it starts to recycle itself (oh, look, more crazy monsters, except these live in underground pipes, etc.), and in the end it just becomes kind of tiresome. Again: too much of a good thing. So it ends not with a bang, but a whimper. And that's a shame, really, because there's a lot of genuinely hilarious stuff here; I give it a middling score not because I disliked it, but because it bites off more than it can chew and ultimately never recovers. Which isn't to say you shouldn't see it. You'll have a lot of fun with it. Just don't expect greatness (or even consistency) from it.

SLC Punk (James Merendino, 1998) 66
For its appealingly brief 96 minutes, SLC Punk walks a dangerous two-edged sword. It comes equipped with a well thought-out message, but lacks an effective means by which to deliver it. As a result, it opts for the bludgeoning technique, which -- needless to say -- can get a bit tiresome. After a while, you get it and wish the film would move on. It doesn't. Which isn't to say this is bad. On the contrary, it's actually quite entertaining. First of all, it has something to say, which puts it ahead of a good many films already, but it's also much funnier than I expected it to be. Which is to say, I wasn't expecting it to be played for laughs at all, but it is, and those laughs are genuine. For some reason, the scene of Steve-O's old friend attempting to apply for a job in a chothing store stands out. Who knows why? But, yeah, it's a good film. It's youthful, energetic, somewhat anarchic, and -- with these in mind -- fun. I just wish I could add "subtle" to that list of adjectives, but you can't have everything.

Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008) 90
Damn, this was good. I mean, no, really: damn, this was good. It's such a rare experience to walk out of a so-called "feel-good movie" feeling good not only because the story itself was legitimately uplifting, but also because everything just WORKED. Calling this a game-show version of City of God may sound inadvertently deprecatory, it's actually a very apt comparison; the good news is, while not nearly as dark or violent, Slumdog Millionaire is very nearly as good as Meirelles' 2002 masterpiece. Stylishly directed by Danny Boyle (of Trainspotting and 28 Days Later fame) in a way that's flashy but adds to the goings-on, this is a simple story amazingly well-told with great performances and visuals to accompany it. The main character is so damn likable that you're really on the edge of your seat the whole time just hoping he'll pull through. In a year distressingly absent of great movies, here's one that's crept in just under the finish line. I can't even begin to tell you how welcome it is.

Some Like It Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959) 78
One of the all-time great movie comedies. I really don't have too much to say about this one, other than it holds up really well. I've seen this about six or seven times now and it's still consistently hilarious. It's not perfect: some of the jokes do fall flat, and others likewise wear thin with time, but this is the case with pretty much every comedy. Wilder knew what he was doing and he did it very, very well. And hats off to him to tackling such an edgy subject in an era when such things were most definitely not smiled upon.

The Spirit (Frank Miller, 2008) 36
If Sin City ever met the old-school TV Batman by way of Re-Animator, the result would probably be something like The Spirit, Frank Miller's ludicrously misguided comic book adaptation. It's awful in the same way Richard Kelly's Southland Tales was awful: it thinks it's really awesome and ambitious, but it's really just a hilarious trainwreck. And I qualify my use of "hilarious": it's not that the movie itself is funny. It tries to be, but it isn't. It's the fact that it thinks it's funny that makes it so damn funny. There's a big difference. Samuel L. Jackson hitting Gabriel Macht over the head with a toilet and screaming "TOILETS ARE ALWAYS FUNNY!" by itself is not amusing. However, the fact that Miller even put it into the movie is goddamn hilarious. See what I'm getting at? The movie is a long series of one WTF after another. It's so bad it almost works. Almost. Did I mention it also thinks it's a hardboiled film noir? Well, it does. And that, much like just about everything else in this movie, is a bad move.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring (Kim Ki-Duk, 2003) 80
Gorgeous. Breathtakingly gorgeous. Really, I can throw these words around, but you won't know until you see it. This, quite simply, has some of the most tremendous cinematography I've ever seen. Every single frame from this film is a composition that I wouldn't mind (and in fact, would like) hanging on my wall. Korean filmmaker Kim Ki-Duk, the man behind the also-great 3-Iron and Time, is responsible for some of the most poignant and haunting films to come out of Asia this decade. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter ... and Spring, in addition to its stunning beauty, holds true to both of these qualities, and emerges as its director's best work (from what I've seen, at least). Its relatively dialogue-free story is quite simple, but very emotionally resonant. Though owing hugely to the Buddhist faith (something I admittedly know little about), there's a universality about the proceedings that makes its themes of sin and redemption really hit home. The story coupled with the visuals make for an awe-inspiring, immersive experience. This is what cinema can accomplish as a visual medium. This is what I call actually "seeing" a movie. So do yourself the favor of tracking it down. Even if the story doesn't grab you (it's deliberately paced, to say the least), I find it hard to believe anyone could be disappointed with the images Ki-Duk has managed to capture on film.

Star Trek (J.J. Abrams, 2009) 74
Well, holy crap. They did it right. I'll admit straight out that I'm not a Star Trek fan at all, but it's nonetheless in my blood and that makes me feel a certain amount of reverence. However, this movie manages to do something unthinkable and kind of miraculous: completely lift the nerd stigma that's plagued the franchise for decades while still being faithful to its roots and its characters. I don't know about you, but I liked the cast a lot: Chris Pine is an excellent Kirk, proving once and for all he's not just a Shatner look-alike; Zachary Quinto and John Cho are very good as Spock and Sulu, respectively; and no better actor in the world could've been chosen for Scotty than Simon Pegg. So it's an endearing ensemble. Also, perhaps a bit more expectedly, the movie's gorgeous: the budget went into the CGI, and it shows. Beautiful spacescapes and explosions take up a large portion of the film, and it's hard to take your eyes off of them. Most importantly, though, it's fun. It's incredibly solid popcorn escapism that's equally capable of entertaining, impressing, and surprising. And I bet the biggest surprise of all is that no one saw that coming. So yeah: it's awesome. Even if you do have to put up with Anton Yelchin's awful fake Russian accent.

Sukiyaki Western Django (Takashi Miike, 2007) 68
I must admit, half the fun of seeing this again was being with people who had not watched it yet. Let's face it: this is really the sort of movie you watch once, are amused by, and then move on with your life. There's nothing deep here, no hidden details or worldly food for thought that would require multiple viewings. It's supposed to be a self-conscious, ridiculous, wildly over-the top homage to everything, an endeavor it more or less succeeds at. But seeing it with people who don't quite know what to expect is a treat in and of itself: Sukiyaki Western Django is a movie that is so patently absurd that literally anything can happen at any moment, and gauging reactions can sometimes be as much fun as the lunacy that's transpiring onscreen. Does it hold up as a film? Yeah, sure. Like I said before, it does what it sets out to do. If you're making up your own rules it's hard to break any of them, and if one thing can be said about the film, it's that there's nothing else quite like it in the world. Maybe it's not an especially great film, but it's a fun one that I'd really have no trouble recommending. That alone puts it way ahead of a lot of other films, and those don't even have a heavily made-up Quentin Tarantino in a steam-powered wheelchair.

Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950) 93
The way I see it, Billy Wilder is just about the greatest director that no one knows about. Names like Kubrick and Hitchcock get thrown around constantly by all manner of film fans, hardcore and casual alike, but for some reason Wilder seems to get lost in the shuffle. The truth is, though, that from the mid-40s to the early 60s, the man basically just made one amazing film after another. However, none in my opinion are quite as amazing as Sunset Blvd., still one of the most profoundly unsettling films ever released by a major studio. Let's face it: Wilder had balls. Big ones. For when it was made, this was edgy stuff. It's still potent almost sixty years later. (The same thing struck me the first time I watched Double Indemnity, Ace in the Hole, and Some Like It Hot -- the man simply refused to play it safe, which no doubt is an integral part of his greatness.) The usual Movie Night crew was chuckling and commenting throughout, but it was easy for me to see that it wasn't so much genuine amusement as it was nervous energy. Despite preconceived notions about "old movies," this is not an "easy" film. It tackles some dark, disturbing subject matter with a frankness that makes it indelible. And with a strong script, brilliant performances (Gloria Swanson is ... beyond words as Norma Desmond), and top-notch direction, it's little wonder this has become one of the all-time greats. I respectfully agree.

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Chan-Wook Park, 2003) 64
Let's put it this way: I am so, so, so glad I saw this before Oldboy. If I'd seen it after, it -- as good as it is -- would've been a disappointment. And it's a very good revenge film. It's stylish and entertaining and held my interest throughout (though I do agree, Adam, that the "let's spell it out for you!" ending can be done without; I got it well before the voiceover came on), but it's also the sort of film one leaves expecting a bit more from. Luckily for us, more is coming. In my case, I only had to wait 30 minutes for it.

Synecdoche, New York (Charlie Kaufman, 2008) 71
Charlie Kaufman is no lightweight. He's written no less than three of our finest contemporary movies (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation., and Eternal Sunshine, for those keeping score). This film, his directorial debut, is the result of all that success. As such, it's very much what you might expect. Being torn between deciding whether something is brilliant or utter pretentious wankery is not a common condition in film today, but Synecdoche, New York delivers on that promise. It's two hours of a maverick screenwriter trying, much like his main character, to create the ultimate "deep, meaningful story about life." Does Kaufman succeed? No, but neither does his character. That's the point. The movie is highly imperfect, but in that respect it's totally perfect, because life itself is similarly flawed. So do you see the issues I'm having trying to review this stupid thing? Every potential mistake it makes can be totally rectified by playing the "oh but it's life" card. So that just leaves me with my opinion. What did I think of it? Well, I think Roger Ebert is right: it's the sort of film you should never see unless you've seen it already. It's difficult, complex, unwieldy, bizarre, highly surreal, multi-layered, and -- I suspect -- quite meaningful. Hell, it's a Kaufman film. It hit me on an intriguing emotional level the first time; who's to say how it'd affect me a second? That is to say, I liked it. About as much, perhaps, as I like life itself. On some days, it's great. On other days, it sucks. On most days, it's simply a very curious thing.

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