Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Made in Britain (Alan Clarke)

Tim Roth, in his first film role, plays a sixteen-year-old skinhead who is placed in an evaluation center after throwing a brick through a Pakistani shopkeeper's window. He rejects any opportunity for a detour from his inevitable march toward prison and is a seething, twitching nerve ending of a human being, full of articulate speech and inarticulate rage, simultaneously fiercely intelligent and a moron. Simply unable to sit through school or a dead-end job, he can't fake enthusiasm for an average, mundane life or any of the bullshit one has to plow through to gain even a fraction of independence, but he is unable to allow himself a way out of the dead-end nihilism and affected racist persona he adopts to keep himself from connecting with any other human being. Despite his skinhead garb and the swastika tattooed on his forehead, he is never seen with any other skinheads, and he strikes up an odd, bullying friendship with his black roommate in the evaluation center. The film's title seems overtly political to me, but the film itself never makes a judgment about Roth's character or even explains why he ended up the way he did. The audience is trusted to make its own decisions, though the film is hardly detached. Instead, through innovative early use of the Steadicam, we're shoved into the film hard and remain there, only a few steps behind Roth. A great movie.

Monday, April 25, 2005

One Missed Call (Takashi Miike)

There's not a lot to say about this one. Miike is a wildly original filmmaker, but this time he's decided to make a straightforward horror movie, using the cliches and staples of the modern Japanese horror film (a curse jumping from person to person caused by a thin, long-haired girl who died full of rage). The plot will be familiar to those of you who've seen "The Ring" and "Ju-On (The Grudge)" or their American remakes, as it's a combination of the two, though I think much better than either, especially "The Grudge." A girl with long, black hair dies full of rage, causing a curse that travels from one cell phone to another. The victim gets a message on his/her cell from his/herself, two days in the future, containing the sound of his/her own death. Two days later, he/she dies. Miike does amazing stuff with this generic material, and the final thirty minutes are scary as hell. If you like horror movies, this movie is absolutely satisfying in the most primal way. I don't normally drop advertisements for movie theaters in the middle of the text, but if you live in Austin, this is only playing at the Alamo Drafthouse South at 9:30 p.m. and it's the kind of movie that's a lot more effective (i.e. scarier) on the big screen.

Out of the Past (Jacques Tourneur)

To paraphrase/butcher the lyrics of Silver Jews' David Berman, Robert Mitchum is like water, because water doesn't give a damn. Mitchum was an actor with limited range who always looked like he could care less about whatever movie he was in, but somehow he was one of the all-time greats. This is one of his best roles, and one of the best film noirs ever made, though it subverts the staples of the genre more than it follows them. It's full of witty one-liners straight out of hard-boiled fiction and plenty of double- and triple-crosses involving a gangster and a mysterious woman, but the film is graceful and elegant instead of brutal and claustrophobic, and the motivations of the characters are as ambiguous as their morality. In the weirdest subversion of genre formula, daylight is seen as a menace, with Mitchum's character being dragged back into his sordid past after being spotted in the daylight, and most of the scenes with characters in mortal danger are played out either in broad daylight or well-lit homes and apartments. In the night, Mitchum still has a chance. Night is where he can sneak around and discover who's framing him, where he can hide, where he can run away from trouble with his girlfriend to some other town. It's still a noir, though, so everybody's doomed, but the final scene with the deaf-mute leaves the ending open to a handful of interpretations, most of them unsettling.

Ganja & Hess (Bill Gunn)

This is one of the oddest vampire movies I've seen. Bill Gunn's 1973 African-American take on the vampire myth is self-consciously arty, confusing, amateurish (in both the best and worst senses of the term), and kind of muddled, but there's a lot to enjoy if you're a connoisseur of American independent films of the seventies, particularly black independent filmmakers. If you're looking for a traditional vampire movie, you'll probably be disappointed. There are no fangs, capes, bats, or coffins, though there is a lot of blood drinking, and the vampire has a butler who "came with the house." The film has a lot of references to ancient Africa and Christianity, but it's not very clear what Gunn is trying to say about either. The highlights for me were the long scenes of gospel singing in the church and on location on the streets and in the bars of upstate New York's black neighborhoods. It's like a time capsule of a particular urban area in 1973, and is probably more interesting than the rest of the film.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

A Perfect World (Clint Eastwood)

Clint Eastwood is a great director. Unfortunately, he's not a writer, so his flawed films almost always come from flawed scripts. "A Perfect World" is a flawed film but it's also a good one, with moments of greatness, largely due to Eastwood's direction. He has a way of turning familiar genre elements into elegant, weird poetry, and he's got a lean, economical eye that cuts a lot of bullshit out of a scene even when the words being spoken are false or overdone. The problems with this film exist largely in the scenes featuring Eastwood as a Texas Ranger, Laura Dern as a criminologist, and Bradley Whitford as an FBI sharpshooter, with Dern completely wasted in a role in which every single line rings false. I like Eastwood and Dern as actors and I was expecting to enjoy their time onscreen, but their characters are poorly written and their scenes together seem both perfunctory and oddly truncated. How odd, then, that the film's greatness comes from scenes featuring Kevin Costner, an actor who bores the hell out of me, and a cute kid. Somehow, Costner is good and the cute kid is great, and their scenes together are full of a tension arising from not knowing what the hell either of their characters are going to do. In an inspired choice, the kid wears a Casper the Friendly Ghost outfit for much of the film, lending his scenes a photogenic surreality that fits the story's dream-like pacing. And while the intense mood of the film's ending is stupidly broken by someone getting a knee to the groin in a poorly timed moment of comic relief, an earlier scene of Costner and the kid spending the night at a black farmer's home is one of the finest scenes in the last several years of film. This scene, in which a peaceful reverie erupts into menace and impending violence, soundtracked by a stuck record playing some weird atonal free-jazz/bagpipe/blues waltz thing, is one of the strongest, strangest, and most unpredictable scenes ever to grace a mainstream Hollywood movie.

In the Land of the Deaf (Nicolas Philibert)

Last week I was watching the news, and one of those dreaded human interest stories came on, this one farted out by the sports reporter. You know you're in trouble when the sports guy's flat top haircut attempts to warm your heart, puppy-doggedly licking your face journalistically with that sickly sweet mixture of sentimentality, condescension, lazy reporting, bad breath, and dribbly saliva more commonly exhibited by the, well, human interest reporter. This particular story was about a teenager who had some kind of rare syndrome named after a dead German aristocrat-physician that prevented parts of him from growing much, i.e. a midget. Turns out this midget-boy is on the high school's golf team, powerlifting team, student council, and concert band. The reporter weighed all the facts and concluded the boy's just like a regular teen, after all, despite the lack of proper shins. Imagine it for a second, will you? A midget who can play golf. What next, a man with a rash on his hand able to drink a glass of mango tea? It figures that a local news affiliate seeks to homogenize a kid who really is different from his peers, and in that condescending homogenization, further ostracize him as some kind of sideshow freak, but those who've attempted to present the lives of handicapped and disabled individuals in other media usually haven't fared much better. There's always this sense of bringing the disabled into our world, instead of pulling us into theirs. This French documentary about the lives of deaf people expertly succeeds at the latter. Almost all speech (with the exception of a few classroom scenes of deaf children learning how to speak aloud) is presented in subtitled sign-language with no voice-overs or narration. The audience is given very little information about anyone in the film and is instead thrown right into the film's subjects' lives. We're forced to provide our own contexts through the accumulation of scenes, until we can piece together enough information to figure out what is happening. It's an effective technique that emulates the actual flow of daily life. Instead of feeling sorry for the deaf, we find out that most of them feel sorry for us. Many subjects talk about their heightened visual sense and how they see hearing people sleepwalk through life, failing to really look at the world around us. They also discuss the language barrier between hearing people from different countries. A deaf sign-language teacher points out that while each country has its own different sign language, it's mostly a matter of variations on a theme, and that, given a couple of days' adjustment, any deaf person can communicate easily with another one. It would still suck not being able to listen to Cheap Trick, though.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Sin City (Frank Miller, Robert Rodriguez)

On a purely visceral, juvenile, and violence-and-boob-loving level, I had a great time watching this movie, and I don't mean that in a sniffy, condescending way. It's one of the best Hollywood action movies I've seen in a long time. Visually, it's beautiful, and the actors look like they're having a great time, which can only extend to the audience. I was happily entertained for the full two-plus hours of running time, and I was thrilled by the black and white (with occasional bursts of color) comic-book/noir atmosphere. It's also nice to see Mickey Rourke in a successful movie again. That guy's a great actor. This is Robert Rodriguez's best film by several hundred miles. Still, I have to wonder about a guy like Rodriguez. He seems completely uninterested in human beings, and that's suspicious for a guy who makes his living as an artist. "Sin City" has a dark edge and a visual beauty that's missing from his other films, but is big, loud, empty action all Rodriguez is capable of? If so, "Sin City" probably won't be topped by anything else he's got in the works. For what it attempts, it succeeds admirably, and it's a hell of a lot of fun.

On the opposite side of the coin, J. Hoberman's review in the Village Voice is thoughtful and well-written. He hated it, and though I agree with a lot of what he says, I still think it's a great movie.

Baadasssss! (Mario Van Peebles)

Mario Van Peebles is not exactly responsible for a lot of cinematic dynamite ("New Jack City," anyone?), but this movie, about the filming of his father's influential, interesting, but not that good pre-blaxploitation independent movie "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song," is by far the best Mario Van Peebles movie I've seen. By that, I mean it's better than the two and a half other movies of his I've seen, which doesn't mean a lot, but, seriously, it's way better than "New Jack City." Also, you almost get to see Adam West's wang. The movie is flawed. A handful of scenes are ruined by sentimentality and overbearing music, other scenes are just goofy, and the guy who plays the hippie executive producer is irritating. They also make Melvin Van Peebles out to be the first American independent filmmaker, though there were hundreds before him. On the whole, though, this is a really entertaining movie about just how hard it is to make an independent film, especially if you're a militant black man in the late sixties/early seventies. Not just a hagiography, the elder Van Peebles is presented warts and all, and his dark side and character flaws are given almost as much screen time as his strengths. It's also one of those films that makes me feel, despite my daydreams and fantasies, glad I'm not making movies. I think I'll stick to writing, thanks. All that hustling for money, coddling of sensitive personalities, fighting against time and lack of funds, having to use and manipulate people, and then having to find someone to distribute the film and hope you can get an audience. I don't think I'm cut out for that kind of life.

Victim (Basil Dearden)

Forty-four years is a lot of time in one person's life, but not in the span of history and human development. That's why it seems crazy that this 44-year-old movie is the first English-language film to ever say the word "homosexual." It also seems crazy that this British movie was never released theatrically in the United States because of its subject matter. Homosexuality was illegal in both the U.S. and Britain at the time, and many British authorities referred to the law as the "blackmailer's charter," which is more than accurate, considering that, at the time of the film's release, homosexuals were the victims of 90 percent of British blackmail cases, and that's just counting the blackmailers who were caught. That's what this movie is about, and that's what dates it. The film is a product of its time, albeit a daring one, but its real appeal now is as a competent and exciting police thriller. Dirk Bogarde is fine in the lead in what was probably a very personal role (Bogarde was a closeted homosexual for most of his life), but I liked him better in later films like "The Servant," "Providence," and "Daddy Nostalgia." The supporting characters are all much more exciting, especially the blackmailer, a scooter-driving, goggle-wearing, menacing creep who always seems to appear out of nowhere. It's worth watching, but time has softened its impact and turned it into an ordinary, though well-done, sociopolitical thriller.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Innocent Blood (John Landis)

I don't know why this movie is so little seen. I'd barely heard of it, I've never heard anyone talk about it, and the reviews I looked up after watching it were mostly negative. But it's so much fun to watch. It's a vampire/gangster/comedy/horror movie that finds a perfect balance between all these elements and is almost as good as Landis's other attempt at this kind of thing, "An American Werewolf in London." Anthony LaPaglia, Don Rickles, and Robert Loggia are great in it, the cameos from Sam Raimi, Tom Savini, Dario Argento, and Frank Oz are funny, and the gore scenes are satisfying in the way that only disintegrating flesh, decapitated heads, and gushing blood geysers can be. The dialogue is funny not so much in the way it's written, but in how it's spoken. Here's some dialogue on paper:
LaPaglia, after chasing a lady vampire all over the city and being knocked down by her: "Man .... Just when I thought I understood some shit."

Lady vampire, after dropping from a skyscraper onto LaPaglia's car, smashing the hood, then jumping into the passenger seat: "You're a cop, right? Where's your cop radio?"
LaPaglia: "This is not my cop car, which is why I wish you hadn't jumped on it."

Not particularly funny, right? Somehow, the way LaPaglia delivers these lines is absolutely hilarious. I don't know why. Some actors can just deliver the goods. The comedy goods. Am I right?

Semi-related aside: There was a five-second scene in a strip club with very brief nudity and, though there were two other much sexier scenes with extended nudity, the videotape was completely shredded for only this one scene. Some previous tape renter has a serious strip club fetish.

Days and Nights in the Forest (Satyajit Ray)

This would make a great double bill with Cassavetes' "Husbands." Both films are about a group of upper-middle class men who take a vacation from their lives, indulging in mammoth drinking binges and experiencing unsuccessful but consequential flirtations with a group of women, and both were filmed in 1970. The differences between the two (besides the obvious cultural differences between the United States and India) are even more interesting. In Cassavetes' film, the men are middle-aged, firmly entrenched in careers, married, and escaping from the suburbs of Long Island into New York City proper before spontaneously catching a plane to London to finish their drinking binge in a separate continent. The catalyst for the days-long binge is the death of a friend, and the men stay drunk for much of the film. In Ray's film, the men are in their late twenties or early thirties, single, rising up in their careers but worried about the impending loss of youth, and escaping from Calcutta to a resort in the country, which they fail to book properly but procure through a bribe. Like the characters in "Husbands," the men are immature and obnoxious, though likable, but they confine their drunkfests to the evening, freeing up their days to pursue three very different women. Ray's film is more overtly about class, while Cassavetes is more interested in the dynamics and theatrics of human behavior, but both films poetically evoke the need we as men have to get together and behave horribly in an attempt to achieve both catharsis and self-destruction and the lessons we can learn (or choose to ignore) from women. This might be my favorite of Ray's films, though it's only available on a shitty bootleg video with poor picture quality and even poorer subtitle readability. I'd like to see this in a good print on the big screen sometime as a part of my fantasy double bill. I wish I had my own movie theater and bags and bags and bags of money.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

What are your favorite vampire, werewolf, and zombie movies?

My brother suggested this poll, so here are my picks:
Vampire: Both F.W. Murnau and Werner Herzog's versions of "Nosferatu"
honorable mentions, "Martin," "Rabid," "Vampire's Kiss" and "Near Dark"

Werewolf: "The Howling"
honorable mention, "An American Werewolf in London"

Zombie: "Dawn of the Dead" (George Romero's original, not the goddamn remake)
honorable mentions, "Night of the Living Dead," "Day of the Dead," "Return of the Living Dead"

My wife and I were discussing our love for vampire movies, and we got in a little debate about which movies are better, vampire or zombie. She said vampire, I said zombie. On further reflection, I'm going to have to change my answer to vampire. You win again, devil woman. However, my favorite horror movies of all time are Romero's zombie trilogy, "Night of the Living Dead," "Dawn of the Dead," and "Day of the Dead." Here's hoping his currently filming fourth installment, "Land of the Dead," keeps to the same high standard.

What are your picks?

Scum (film version) (Alan Clarke)

I purchased Blue Underground's Alan Clarke box set several months ago, and have finally found some time to start watching it. Clarke was a British director who mostly made television films for the BBC, making only three or four feature films in his career. Unfortunately, none of his films, TV or otherwise, had ever been available on video, with the exception of "Rita, Sue, & Bob, Too," and even that one has been out of print for years. I've been curious about him for a long time after reading glowing praises of his work from people like Ray Carney, Harmony Korine, Mike Leigh, Danny Boyle, Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, and Gus Van Sant (who named his film "Elephant" in homage to Clarke's film of the same name). After checking out the first two films in the box, I'm really excited about the other three. Some background explanation of this film: "Scum" was originally filmed in 1976 for the BBC, but the censors thought it was too intense and banned it from airing. Clarke decided to remake it as a theatrical film two years later, with some of the same actors, including Ray Winstone in the lead. The banned BBC version, also included in the box set, is astonishingly good, a brutal, claustrophobic look at life in a boys reformatory presented as a series of episodic, long takes focusing primarily on Winstone, but leaving him for several scenes to focus on other characters, with excellent use of light and dark and the hand-held camera. The film works from the exact same script, with some scenes removed and others cut from the television version put back in. It's a good film, but can only disappoint compared to the TV version. The film is slicker, more melodramatic, and the impact is lessened by its familiarity, but there are still great things about it. I wonder what I would have thought had I seen it fresh.

Boy Hooligans from Kishiwada a.k.a. Young Thugs: Nostalgia (Takashi Miike)

You never know what to expect from a Takashi Miike movie. About the closest comparison I can make is with Tarantino (though they're very different filmmakers), mainly because both men's films are a mishmash of styles, usually incredibly violent, and basically comedies at heart. That's a superficial comparison, however, and one that's not entirely accurate, though they do share sensibilites and are fans of each other's stuff. Miike exists in a world of his own, and if you haven't seen any of his stuff, I would recommend "Audition," "Visitor Q," and "Gozu." The Austin Film Society just finished playing a retrospective of his work, which I was excited about, but unfortunately I'd already seen every film they showed. Fortunately, the Alamo Drafthouse Theater stepped in and added 12 more Miike films to the retrospective. Of those, I caught three of them. This one is basically a straightforward coming-of-age comedy/drama about an 11-year-old kid with a drunken, violent father who runs away from home with two friends, then comes back. Still, a straightforward film for Miike also includes scenes like the boy's grandfather shoving a broom handle up the father's ass in front of the entire family because he beat up the boy's teacher, and the boy engaging in several street fights with another boy who wears red leather gloves and swings a ball and chain.

Sunrise (F.W. Murnau)

One of the greatest silent films from one of the great silent film directors, "Sunrise" dispenses with an admittedly great plot within the first half hour (one that would have carried a lesser film for its entirety) and embarks on an extended sequence of mood and atmosphere, in which a murderous, philandering, crazed, depressed husband decides against killing his wife, falls in love with her all over again, takes her to a vaguely futuristic city to attend a carnival, then returns home and gets caught in a violent storm at sea. Plus, you get to see a pig drink a bottle of wine. Murnau uses tons of then-new visual innovations to give the film an atmosphere of a long, nightmarish, but ultimately life-affirming hallucination.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

From Dusk Till Dawn (Robert Rodriguez)

This was my second viewing of the Rodriguez-directed/Tarantino-scripted crime/action/vampire movie (I saw it for the first time my freshman year of college), and there were a lot of things I still liked and a lot of other things that didn't wear as well nine years later. Rodriguez and Tarantino seem made for each other, though Rodriguez strikes me as strictly a style-over-substance kind of guy (though I am excited to see "Sin City"), while Tarantino has so much style he doesn't need substance, creating his own little world out of the best pieces of every B movie, martial arts epic, and Hollywood classic ever made. The script for this film is an early effort from Tarantino, pre-dating even "Reservoir Dogs," and is pretty creaky in places. Harvey Keitel's character's "man of God losing his faith" storyline is pretty generic and under-developed and Tarantino's and George Clooney's family relationship and character traits aren't explored in the detail the little hints we're given promise to deliver. None of the film's many death scenes have any dramatic weight, and we never really care about any of these characters very much. Still, the actors all do a fine job, and the supporting cast includes a who's who of B-movie vets, including John Saxon and Fred "Black Caesar" Williamson. The vampires are pretty exciting, too, though they have more in common with the staples of the zombie film (mass army of shuffling, anonymous killing machines) rather than the usual vampire mythos (lone, attractive creature of the night using sex appeal to get his bloody kicks). This is fitting, in a way, because Tom Savini, special effects guru for both "Dawn" and "Day of the Dead," plays a biker. Yes, I know the names of special effects technicians. I loved horror movies so much as a kid. I read Fangoria and knew the names of all the special effects guys. No, I never played Dungeons and Dragons. Screw you for asking.

Life and Nothing More (Abbas Kiarostami)

Some of the best recent films are Iranian, despite (or maybe because of) the country's rigidly strict censorship laws. In particular, the directors Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi are proof that severe limitations can actually be creatively freeing, and their films are some of the most formally inventive stuff of the past fifteen years. Kiarostami, especially, has created his own cinematic language. It's not the easiest style to jump into, and I admit being bored by parts of the first film of his I saw. I had the feeling, though, that the boredom was my fault, and I was intrigued enough by the film as a whole to check out some of his others. It's worth the effort, and Kiarostami's films give you as much, or more, than you put into them. Some of his trademarks include a use of non-professional actors, lots of driving and scenes shot inside moving cars, and endings that seem jarring, abrupt, or random but somehow appropriate. This may be my favorite of the four Kiarostami films I've seen so far. It's about a movie director and his young son driving from Tehran to a small town in the country after a devastating earthquake to see if some children who acted in one of his films are still alive. They find the main highway hopelessly clogged with traffic and veer off into sometimes severely quake-damaged back roads, talking to the villagers they meet along the way about their experiences during the quake. That's about it. It doesn't sound like much, but it's deceptively amazing how much it is.

The Stranger (Satyajit Ray)

Ray's final film tells the story of a woman who receives a letter from a long-lost uncle, requesting to spend a few days visiting her and her family. Her husband, a business executive, is skeptical and thinks the man may be an impostor out to steal some money. The plot is a springboard for a considered weighing of the benefits and drawbacks of civilized life, tribal existence, globe-trotting, provincialism, traditional family and career, and wealth and poverty. I liked the movie, though the simple setting and largely stationary camera are a sharp contrast to the vibrant, intense images in Ray's earlier films. I don't really have a lot to say about this movie. It's very straightforward and speaks for itself.


Film-Watching Robot is a subsidiary of Can-Smashing Robot Systems, Inc. This website will document every film I watch, with a full review. Film-Watching Robot sees no distinction between high and low art, only between bad and good. Film-Watching Robot would like to interest you in a spacious time-share in the Ozarks. Come on. It's a really good time-share. Boop. Beep.

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