Friday, September 16, 2005

Link

Here's the latest batch. Thank goodness someone took my "anti-Bushies" bait... I was afraid it had been wasted.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Report #4 Recap

Yesterday was one of those completely schizophrenic festival days I usually love. First off: I'll be interviewing Sammo Hung towards the end of the fest, so if you've got any questions for him post 'em in a TB or shoot me an email.

I also popped in on a luncheon celebrating the launch of Norman Jewison's new book, This Terrible Business Has Been Good To Me. He's such a sweetheart of a man - I'm glad I got a chance to shake his hand and say thank you. I haven't had time to do much more than flip through it, but when you open to a random page and find him chatting with Bobby Kennedy about how important In the Heat of the Night is gonna be (this before Jewison had even landed the job)... well, I suspect it'll have some great stories in it.

And then I go out and have one of my worst film days ever. The specific reviews are coming later, but it was like my instincts had gotten cross-wired - everything I thought had the potential to be a hidden gem, uhh, wasn't.

And THEN I get to wake up and hear about Robert Wise. To quote Slim Pickens, I am depressed.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Review: Romance and Cigarettes (2005, directed by John Turturro)

Walken does Tom Jones' Delilah.

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What, you need more? Are you kidding me? Those five minutes were worth festival priced tickets on their own, forget the rest of the awesomely, sweetly silly film around them, and easily landed this thing in my fest top ten (and probably higher). Let me repeat myself: WALKEN DOES DELILAH. Sings along with Tom. Acts out the song in a crazy musical fantasy sequence (one of many throughout the film - Romance and Cigarettes is, in its own deeply demented way, a musical), then does a dance down the steps after stabbing her at the door that can only be described as Walkenesque, before doing a Busby Berkeley style bit with the cops.

I mean, the rest of the movie is fantastic too. Everybody gets their moments to shine, from James Gandolfini and Susan Sarandon as the fractured couple at the film's heart to Aida Turturro (oh man, her "statement of feelings" speech slayed the entire crowd at the Elgin), Mandy Moore and Mary-Louise Parker as their daughters, to Steve Buscemi as Gandolfini's best friend (holy Christ, the hospital scene between him, Gandolfini and solid gold Broadway vet Elaine Stritch as Gandolfini's mother was unreal) to especially, especially, incredibly Kate Winslet as the world's sexiest, crudest bint.

You know, forget the Walken thing. Go see this film for Winslet. Her performance is so... I mean on the one hand it's so ridiculously over-the-top (the scene where she eats fried chicken in bed is going to be burned in everyone's heads forever) and yet she makes this completely fabulous character seem so completely natural that it's a work of sheer genius on her part. Regardless of what happens in February Winslet, here, gave the best performance by a supporting actress of 2005. It won't even be close. And of course it won't get recognized because the movie is a crazy comedy/musical/love poem to New York, and the Academy never recognizes comedy performances unless they let an old man misread the teleprompter. God the Oscars suck.

Where was I? Oh yeah, Winslet. No, wait, on third thought go see it for the musical numbers. The film isn't afraid to let the actors sing themselves (whether they can sing all that well or not), but gives them all the help they need to sell the song, whether it be in the form of dancing garbagemen or a big church choir when Sarandon tackles Janis Joplin. The musical sequences are glorious, and fully understand just how silly they are. This isn't an attempt to revive the musical; Romance and Cigarettes instead trades off people's nostalgia for musicals to make an emotional point. Beyond the Sea, this ain't.

You know what? Just go see it. You can thank me later.

Link

I fired this one off before my doting mother pointed out the typos. Eep.

Review: Stoned (2005, directed by Stephen Woolley)

A tired retread of Performance with cliches replacing Nic Roeg's more interesting observations on human nature, Stoned attempts to recreate the final days of founding Rolling Stone Brian Jones. Despite getting the surface details more or less right, the film completely misses in almost every other respect, from its slavish devotion to the Rock Star Myth and British class stereotypes, to its total failure to portray Jones musically as anything more than a guy who happen to know both Mick and Keith before they became big. About the only thing that does work is Monet Mazur's performance as Anita Pallenburg (and not just because she's naked a lot), a woman inpressive enough to get both Jones and Richards to fall for her. But even that just unbalances the film further - while we have no trouble understanding what they would see in Anita, the only reason really offered in the film as to why she would be drawn to Jones is that he's famous and has a big cock.

Let me sum up the film thusly. When Jones goes off on his first acid trip, the song that kicks in on the soundtrack is... White Rabbit. You know, the only psychedelically-themed song recorded in the '60s.

White. Fucking. Rabbit.

Brian Jones deserves better.

Report #3 Recap

Here's some interesting line buzz I picked up second-hand: Jason Statham has apparently started shooting a flick in L.A. for Lion's Gate (or is about to), a pretty cool-sounding action/martial arts riff on DOA called Crank -- the plot basically has him posioned, and the only way to keep himself alive until he finds the guy with the antidote is to flood his system with adrenalin peridoically... heh heh. Besson's team doesn't seem to be involved though, which is a shame.

More reviews, including an absolute must-see for every single person who visits this site: six hours of bloody Danish mayhem called the Pusher Trilogy.

Link

That silly bugger Quint forgot to chop off the signature from my email when he posted my second set of reviews... fortunately the song lyric quoted is strangely appropriate. I'm dying to see if any of the TalkBackers get it.

Review: Why We Fight (2005, directed by Eugene Jarecki)

Here's a question for the peanut gallery: if the pro-Bushies (or "right wing", to use the quaintly obsolete term) are so correct in their worldview, why can't any of them make a decent documentary defending their position? Leave Michael Moore out of the equation for a moment; from Outfoxed to the Corporation, the last few years have seeen plenty of shots taken (with varying degrees of accuracy, granted) at the Bush administration, its allies and the very underpinnings of its New American Century-derived philosophy. What have you got in the opposite column? A couple of amateurish hatchet jobs of Fahrenheit 9/11, and one glorification of Bush's post-9/11 "heroics" that would have made Stalin grimace at its clumsiness had it been about him.

Well, if you don't like the way those scales are tipping, don't worry - Why We Fight pretty much breaks them entirely. The film looks back at President Eisenhower's farewell address, the prophetic speech in which he gave the military-industrial complex its name, and skillfully examines the rise of the M-I complex both on the largest (the sweep of US foreign policy after WWII) and smallest (the struggles of a retired NYPD sergeant who lost a son when the towers fell, or the pilots who dropped the opening salvos of round two of the Iraq War) levels. It also tries to come up with an answer to the question in the title, an answer which has grown far more complicated since Frank Capra's day.

Covering as it does US history since Eisenhower, the film gives every modern president a deserved smack, regardless of party. Each one, after all, found an excuse to use our might, found some little country somewhere worth invading or bombing or sending troops into for one reason or another. But the current administration, along the current situation in Washington, get dissected to the bone. Eisenhower's warning went unheeded, and as a result the US government has effectively been taken over by the unelected and unelectable. The cycle is now locked in: the war machine begets think tanks to justify its use; the think tanks beget politicans who tow their policy line; and the politicians beget the war machine through the ridiculous defense budget. Rumsfeld, Cheney, Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol, Richard Perle et al are just the devolved bastard by-products of a process that has been churning for decades - removing them from power would simply be attacking the symptom, not the cause.

At its core, Why We Fight is not an "anti-This Guy" or "anti-That Party" doc. It's a terrifying clear portrait of a democracy in crisis, a democracy that is teetering on the brink of irrelevance, rot and collapse (which is pretty much the order Rome had them in too). It's also one of the best films of the year, doc or otherwise.

You may now resume bashing Michael Moore, if it makes you feel any better.

Review: The Quiet (2005, directed by Jamie Babbit)

At this point, dystopian visions of suburbia have become a genre unto themselves (one that's probably ripe for a Zucker-style parody, come to think of it.) After the Ice Storm and American Beauty and Far From Heaven and, heck, Serial Mom, there isn't a whole lot left to say about abouty the decaying, tranquilized souls of the American middle class.

There are, however, still some interesting ways to say it.

The Quiet tells the story of Dot, a teenager who went deaf and mute at the age of 7 after her mother died. Orphaned when her father also passes away, she's taken in by her godparents the Deers (indie stalwart Martin Donovan, and Edie Falco in top form, plus Elisha Cuthbert as their daughter.) If you'll forgive me for lapsing into reviewerese for a moment, "Dot's role as passive observer becomes threatened when the full details of the desperate torture of her new family's routine are revealed to her."

While its great to see Cuthbert prove that she can in fact act, and then some (Goddess knows they never gave her much to work with on 24...), and Camilla Belle as Dot marks herself as a talent with a bright future, the real revelation here is director Jamie Babbit. I'm not a fan of her first feature, But I'm a Cheerleader - it struck me as John Waters Lite, with half the fun and none of the calories - but aside from some fetching uniforms on Cuthbert and her closeted best friend, this film is nothing like that one. In fact it's a huge step forward. The look of the Quiet is very neo-expressionist, all cool desolate blues and streetlight creeping in like smoke through half-drawn venetian blinds, while the soundscape expertly conveys and plays with Dot's deafness. Combine those with excellent performances all around and you have a smart, sophisticated piece of work that proves Babbit is clearly someone to watch. If she makes a similar exponential jump with her next movie she's going to be demanding some attention from Oscar.

(Oh, and the sneaky Matrix reference was a nice touch... see if you can spot it.)

Monday, September 12, 2005

Link

Quint finally got around to posting my first set of reviews... can't say I blame him, what with all the QT funness going on down there.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Review: Pusher Trilogy (1996/2004/2005, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn)

Man, I would have loved to have been in the room the first time Quentin Tarantino saw these...

The Pusher trilogy (Pusher, With Blood on My Hands: Pusher 2, and I'm the Angel of Death" Pusher 3) is one of the most dynamic, explosive, sadistic, adrenalized bundles of cinematic fun in recent memory, and the second-greatest trilogy about organized crime ever. And no, that definitely isn't a back-handed compliment.

The first installment tells the story of Frank, a small-time drug dealer. Already in debt to Milo, a somewhat bigger fish in their dank little pond, Frank scrapes by from one deal to the next, getting drunk and high with his buddy Tonny and never quite committing to a relationship with his hooker girlfriend Vic. A big opportunity presents itself when a Swede he knew in prison looks to make a big buy, but the only person he can get that amount of product from is Milo - when the deal goes south Frank is left with neither cash nor smack, and he's got just a few short days to come up with enough money to keep Milo from letting his henchman Radovan bring the pain...

In the second film, Tonny is just out of prison. Never the brightest bulb anyway, the beating he got from Frank near the end of the first movie rendered him almost functionally retarded. In fact the only thing keeping him alive is likely the fact that his father is big-time crime lord the Duke, although even the Duke despises him. Tonny's one chance at redemption in his father's eyes (given the Duke's own pressing fatherhood issues) might be the newborn son Tonny didn't even know he had until he got out. Hooking back in with his dad's organization, Tonny becomes buddies with coked-up paranoid loser Kurt the Cunt, who's only the brains of their little two-man outfit because they both mistakenly believe he's the smart one. When Kurt fucks up a completely routine buy, he gets Tonny in too deep by coming up with increasingly convoluted plans to keep his partner off his back - without telling Tonny who that partner is...

In the third (and hopefully not final) movie, Milo takes the lead. Past his prime and trying to kick his dope habit, he's drifting towards semi-retirement, worried far more about cooking for his daughter's massive 25th birthday party than he is with his organization's latest dealings. When a bad batch of sarna lays all his henchmen low with food poisoning, Milo is left at the mercy of the various young Turks (and Albanians) looking to make names for themselves on the street, especially if it comes at the expense of a legend like him. Clinging by his fingernails to the wagon, Milo has nothing to defend himself with but his wits and his instincts - and a convenient hammer, and a favor called in from an old friend...

As a whole, the Pusher films play out like Cassavettes' adaptation of Balzac's Human Comedy, only with lots of plastic sheeting laid down for easy clean-up afterwards. There's not a single weakness in any of these movies. Every film has its own distinct atmosphere and feel, even though they all take place in the same milieu - #3 is basically an extremely black comedy that deals intelligently with the racial issues boiling away in Denmark, while #2's dedication to Hubert Selby Jr. makes perfect sense once you've seen it. The acting is brilliant, top to bottom, beginning to end; the dialogue is hilariously banal at times, chillingly so at others. The propulsive, grinding rock music on the soundtracks fits as perfectly as Goblin did for Dario Argento way back when. The restless handheld camerawork works exactly the way restless handheld camerawork is supposed to, letting you into the lives of these people without shaking the onscreen images into incoherence. And you're never allowed to forget for a moment, no matter how occasionally charismatic or sympathetic one of the characters might seem, that these are society's dregs you're watching, the absolute lowest of the low. There's no honor among thieves, and apparently no self-respect either, and not a whole lot of intelligence. When the end comes for them - and it comes for an awful lot of them, whether it's at the end of a gun, a corkscrew or down a garbage disposal - it feels like nothing more than an inevitability.

The Pusher films are astoundingly good, astoundingly vicious and bloody, and astoundingly fresh. There's probably too much depravity and viscera for them to get a chance in North American theaters, but they're eventually going to get over here on DVD.

And when they do, they're going to spread like wildfire.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Day One Recap

Toronto - Day One

Greetings, starkinder! Sorry I've been maintaining radio silence, but I just haven't been able to come up for air. Unlike previous years, when the festival took a day or so to gear up, this time it started at full throttle and hasn't slowed down yet. I've got plenty of reviews backlogged already (including Tideland, which is... gaaah. Holy fuck. I still can't form a coherent thought about it.)

I know what you really want to know though... who's in town? Who will win the coveted Belle of the Ball title in 2005? This year there are only two real candidates, and unless Elisha Cuthbert has a previously unrealized talent for swearing like a sailor with Tourette's I gotta think Sarah Silverman will take home that prestigious taffeta sash and year's supply of corn chips.

I'd tell you about party stuff, but Copernicus got to hang with Bono at the Tommy Chong afterparty and I'm rather jealous.

Anyway, to the reviews...

Review: A History of Violence (2005, directed by David Cronenberg)

There are two distinct types of Cronenberg films -- the ones in which a character or world's sickness is expressed externally (Videodrome, the Fly, Naked Lunch etc.), and the ones in which that sickness is locked inside, without Cronenberg's signature visuals to set them free (the Dead Zone, for instance.) Occasionally the two will intersect (most effectively in Dead Ringers, but also to an extent in Crash) but with his last two movies, it really felt like he was putting that first type of Cronenberg film behind him. eXistenZ at times bordered on gleeful self-parody, while the Cronenberg of the '80s might have used something far stranger than string to build those webs in Spider.

If A History of Violence is any indication of where Croneberg is going from here, I don't think anyone will miss that first type of filmaking at all.

The film opens with menace - two Bad Men on a crime spree, preparing to move on to the next backwater town. It then jumps to a scene that's almost ludicrously saccharine - a little blonde moppet of a girl wakes up from a nightmare, worried that there are monsters in her room. First her father (Viggo Mortsensen), then her teenage brother, come in to comfort her with earnest platitudes and cliches. Last her mother (Maria Bello) joins the impromptu hug-in, her gentle, loving sarcasm providing the only hint of depth to the emotions being expressed. You half expect to see Norman Rockwell in the corner of the room doing some preliminary sketches, the scene is so off-puttingly cornball.

Two scenes into the movie, and Cronenberg has already placed a seething ball of dread in your stomach... damn, the man is good.

From there A History of Violence proceedes towards a seemingly inevitable intersection. Life in the Stall family's small town appears to be everything life in a small American town should be. Dad Tom (Viggo) runs a diner and greets everyone by first name. Son Jack gets bullied at school because he's smart and unathletic. Mom Edie finds the kids a babysitter and surprises Tom with her old cheerleading outfit. It all seems to be exactly what it seems to be... and yet, it feels wrong.

Then the Bad Men show up, and Cronenberg flips everything on its head. You see, there are Ban Men, and then there are BAD MEN. And Tom is one of the latter.

Y'know, this is going to be considered a 'spoiler'-type movie by a lot of people, but it isn't in the least. Once Tom's forced into action and his face gets on the news, and long before the roaches start crawling out of the woodwork of his past, his identity is never in any doubt. It's written so clearly in his body language and in his eyes that this is a man with a history, something terrible he wishes he could escape or unwrite, that Ed Harris calling him Joey is almost redundant, just someone slipping off an innocuous dust jacket to reveal the book that's actually underneath. Tom/Joey's past is tangible, haunting every frame of film right up until the moment it ceases to be his past and becomes his present.

One of the great strengths of this movie is the performances. Viggo's got a lot of his plate here, playing a character almost constantly at war with himself, and he nails it. There's no stupid tricks here, where he changes his hairstyle or something when he goes back to being Joey. It's all done with the set of his shoulders, and his walk, and the look in his eyes, and it's chilling. Bello is the perfect foil for him, a smart confident woman who thought she was the strong one in the relationship. Her reactions to having her world ripped out from under her feet feel completely true. And the sex scenes between the two of them... whoa. Expect to have your heart rate at least doubled watching them, and guys? Don't plan on standing up or anything right afterwards.

(Speaking on which... at the end of one of those sex scenes, Cronenberg throws in the most political two seconds of his entire career. Not that the MPAA is a tough target, mind you, but it's still a tremendously brazen 'fuck you' directed at their institutionalized hypocrisy. I applaud you, sir!)

The other outstanding performance comes from Ashton Holmes as Jack. He's got almost as much going on under the surface as his father does, and provides an excellent counter-point to Viggo's walking time bomb act during the middle portions of the film. Here's another kid with chops - there seem to be a lot of those this year.

Above all though, this is Cronenberg's show. He's constructed a masterfully evil film here, one as riveting as it is unclassifiable. As with the Proposition, there's no showy action movie-style ass-kicking here. Violence is a sudden, brutal thing in Cronenberg's hands, and its echoes can reverberate for a lifetime.

A History of Violence is a masterwork from a master director, that can be read on any number of levels. (One could, for instance, construct a powerful argument that the film is a metaphorical illustration of the intelligence community's principle of "blowback".) Well worth seeing, as soon as possible.

Review: Banlieue 13 (2005, directed by Pierre Morel)

A reasonably entertaining trifle from Luc Besson's adrenalin factory, Banlieue 13 has exactly one thing going for it, the new "urban" "extreme" sport of parkour. The stunt work on display here is extraordinary, which makes sense when you realize that parkour basically involves people doing for fun what Jackie Chan does for a living.

Beyond the awesomely fun stunts and foot chases, the fight scenes are fairly meh, and the rest of the film is distinguishable from Gymkata only by its production values. It does feature the quickest heroin withdrawl in film history, though, which I guess counts for something.

There's nothing really wrong with Banlieue 13. It just got made too late. A few years ago, it might have been considered revolutionary. In the wake of some of the other efforts from the Besson team, like the Transporter, that have come out recently - much less Ong Bak! - Banlieue 13 just feels like it's playing catch-up, not blazing any trails.

Review: Tideland (2005, directed by Terry Gilliam)

Great films have exactly one thing in common -- they have the capacity to surprise the audince, whether in terms of story or theme or visuals or whatever. Somewhere in every great film is a jack-in-the-box that makes people shriek or giggle when it bursts open.

Make no mistake, this is a great film. But you're going to hear an awful lot of shrieking over it.

Tideland follows young Jeliza Rose through a few ugly days in her ugly life. Her mother's on methadone and her father, well, isn't, and relies on his little girl to cook up his smack and prepare his needles. When Mama dies, daddy and daughter flee to the house he grew up in, abandoned since his mother died. With only one other house, populated by its own train wreck of a family, within miles Jeliza Rose is essentially left to fend for herself in a place where civilization is just a big, clumsy word.

One of the things that makes Tideland so surprising is that it's really a Gilliam film turned inside out. The normal Gilliam aesthetic is to create a universe in which a pool of wonder hides an undercurrent of darkness. Tideland inverts that formula, presenting a universe as black as cancer with a thin little trickle of fantasy to relieve the despair. Jeliza Rose's world is hellish; Things happen around her and to her that Should Not Be. What's worse, she doesn't even realize it. The way things are for her is the way they're always been. Unlike the child heroes of Time Bandits or Baron Munchausen, Jeliza Rose has no frame of reference from which to put what's going on in perspective, and no home to which she can return once the madness subsides. Tideland makes explicit the message that's always gone unstated -- a Gilliam universe is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.

More than that though, what makes Tideland great is the complete honesty with which it shows that universe through Jeliza Rose's eyes. The things she sees, the way she reacts to them, are presented totally without judgement, despite the fact that from the audience's perspective they are unquestionably WRONG. Little girls, especially darling little girls played with such incredible, dazzling intelligence and skill (note to Hollywood: Jodelle Ferland just made Dakota Fanning obsolete) that you can't help but want to scoop them up and give them a big hug and protect them from the darkness, should not be subjected to the things Jeliza Rosa is subjected to. Darling little girls should also not do the things Jeliza Rosa does, in her efforts to adapt to her surroundings. But they do, and she does, and there's nothing we can do but watch, and pray that she somehow survives it all.

The fact that the film is transgressive is not what gives it such impact. It's that lack of condemnation that's going to create that chorus of shrieks. By playing it straight, by not making any moral judgements and simply letting Ferland's performance carry the film, Gilliam has crafted a film that strips away all defenses. The empathy I felt for Jeliza Rose blasted away any distance I had from what she was going through, and I suspect most people will feel the same. And a lot of them are going to be very uncomfortable with that feeling. Add to that the number of people who are going to feel betrayed because they expect Gilliam films to be psychedelic, feel-good bits of whimsy... well, let's just say this one's going to generate some pretty strong reactions.

There's no doubt in my mind that, eventually, Tideland is going to be seen as one of the high points of Gilliam's career. It may take a while to get there, though.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Review: Takeshis (2005, directed by Takeshi Kitano)

Usually when a director makes a "doubles" film, it's for one of two reasons -- to either delve into a philosophical discussion of fate and free will, or to use really cool split screen effects so that you can have TWO Jean-Claude Van Dammes fighting side by side. In Takeshis, Kitano does neither, instead using the doubles theme to deconstruct his own persona and mythology as a Japanese media icon. And by deconstruct, I don't mean "analyze in an effort to subvert meaning and assumed truths", I mean "gleefully bash apart with a tire iron".

Kitano, in his 'Beat' Takeshi persona, plays himself, one of Japan's most recognizable faces, a show biz vet best known for his bloody, stylish yakuza films. While at a TV studio one day to finish production on yet another crap-ass gangster story, he bumps into Mr. Kitano (also played by 'Beat' Takeshi), a struggling actor forced to play a clown and a dead ringer for 'Beat'. Takeshi and his entourage muse a bit about what life must be like for the like-a-look, and from there the film launches into a series of overlapping dream sequences, with 'Beat' fantasizing about Mr. Kitano's life of drudgery and quiet humiliation, while Mr. Kitano fantasizes about what life must be like as 'Beat' Takeshi - or at least, what life must be like as the type of big screen character 'Beat' Takeshi is notorious for playing.

Confused yet? It goes deeper. A 'Beat' Takeshi stalker mistakes Mr. Kitano for the star, and gives him a present - a homemade 'Beat' Takeshi bobblehead. (Or did that happen in a fantasy sequence?) The members of Takeshi's entourage, and people from the TV studio, all plays roles in the dreamed-up life of Mr. Kitano (or is it the other way around?) Signature Kitano 'bits' - the interlude on the beach; a tap dancing sequence; his real-life, near-fatal accident - become muddled up in one and/or both sets of dream lives. If it all sounds hopelessly insular it's not. Kitano is far too accomplished a director, and his show business instincts far too ingrained, to let self-indulgence get in the way of entertainment. Even if you don't grok why samurai would be charging up a beach to get gunned down by a bleach blonde Mr. Kitano, it's still a weirdly cool visual, and something else equally weird and cool will come along in a few moments to distract you from it anyway.

If Takeshis has any message in it apart from the obvious "I'm not the person you see on screen, dummies!", it's that the yakuza period of his film career is over. You really get the sense that he's putting the final nails in the coffin of the hard-ass gangster archetype he already lampooned in Kikujiro. It may be that Kitano never makes a film like Sonatine or Fireworks again, and this is his way of saying goodbye.

If so, Takeshis is a fitting send-off.

Review- Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic (2005, directed by Liam Lynch)

A film for the nasty people, Jesus Is Magic is a concert film that captures the radiant glory that is Sarah Silverman. Songsmith, thespian, artist, seeing Silverman live proves to be an overwhelming experience simply due to her inescapable talent, and that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach that says "Hey, worm, what makes you good enough for Sarah to share her gifts with you? What makes you so special? Nothing, that's what, you pathetic joke. Why don't you just quit wasting air that Sarah might wanna use someday, loser."

Of course some folk think she's a comedian, but I don't see it myself. Hearing the anguish in her voice as she describes the mistreatment of the union workers who debone Ethiopian babies to retrieve the jewels from their tailbones, you can't help but be moved. Silverman is many things -- heroine, trailblazer, visionary, J.A.P. -- but a lowly comedian? That's just insulting.

I mean really. When she expresses in song her understanding of the plight of porn stars whose livelihood depends on the place where the doody comes out, you know that this is a woman whose compassion transcends all boundaries, and who will take you into her heart no matter who you are, unless you're black.

Director Liam Lynch deserves some props too, although I can't imagine how incompetent you'd have to be to make a winning creature like Sarah look bad. The sketches and musical numbers scattered throughout are tight and sharp (not unlike Sarah's you-know-what, come to think of it) and flow naturally from the concert footage without overshadowing them.

In the end though, this film is all about Sarah. And when we leave her at the end -- spotlight gone, masks dropped, making out with herself in her dressing room mirror -- we realize that even a celestial presence like hers in rooted in human soil, and there is hope that perhaps some small flower might bloom in you as you bask in her sunlight.

Assuming that, y'know, you're one of *them*.

Review: Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (2005, directed by Shane Black)

A love letter to hard-boiled, two-fisted detective stories, Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang is a great comeback for one of the men who arguably defined Hollywood in the '80s, and a damn fun film even if you don't know who Shane Black is.

Of course if you do know who he is, it's that much sweeter...

KKBB (hmmm, maybe 2K2B? I could go either way on that one) tells the story of Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr.), a not very bright burglar who stumbles into an audition while trying to escape the cops. He gets the job and is whisked out to LA, where he hooks up with Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), the detective-consultant (not consulting detective, mind you) on the picture whose job it is to get Harry's feet wet in the ways of the private dick. Faster than you can say "Red Harvest" Harry is up to his eyeballs in corpses, shopworn plot devices from old pulp novels, and beautiful dames, with only his natural, stupid stubbornness to see him through to the end.

Downey Jr. and Kilmer are both hysterical here, and have a chemistry that smacks more of Lewis and Martin than anything, with Downey as the motormouth and Kilmer as the suave one. Michelle Monaghan matches them pretty much quip for quip too as The Girl, the three of them making Black's dialogue crackle.

His script being a live wire is no surprise; what does come out of nowhere is how good Black's direction is. The movie isn't just narrated by Harry, it's seemingly edited by him as well, and he's more than willing to stop the action and jump back to another scene if he screwed up explaining something and has to fill in a blank.

There haven't been too many real popcorn movies this year, films that had no goal other pure entertainment. 2K2B will rectify that lack the moment it hits theaters.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Review: The Well (2005, directed by Kristian Petri)

For the most part, trying to solve "the mystery of Orson Welles" is a mug's game, even moreso than it would be for more common folk. The riddles of a person's life are obscure for a reason. You might, in the end, figure out what Rosebud was, but figuring out what it means is pretty much futile. The best you can do is learn something about yourself in the attempt.

Fortunately, Kristian Petri knew all that before he made The Well. On the surface, the film is about Petri's quest to find out who "the real Welles" was by retracing his footsteps through Spain, one of the great loves of the great man's life, and interviewing those who knew him best there (an odd assortment of folk it is too, ranging from Oja Kodar to Jess Franco to some Scottish ex-rugby player who was Orson's drinking buddy and fellow matador groupie). In reality the film is about Petri himself, as seen through the lens of Welles' legend and staggering creativity. The Well isn't so much an examination of what Don Quixote meant to Welles as it is an adaptation of the story, with Petri playing the Don and Welles playing every other role, especially those of the sheep and the windmills.

There's plenty here for the Orsonista too -- Franco's anecdotes are a riot, and some of the newly uncovered footage (Welles doing Shylock, or explaining the appeal of bullfighting as "a tragedy in three acts... with the bull as the hero"), as with all uncovered Welles footage, makes you long for an afterlife that features a DVD shelf containing all his unfinished and bastardized masterpieces, restored and pristine.

The doc isn't without its flaws. Petri aims for a languid pacing in keeping with a Spanish aesthetic, but ends up with a film that simply drags in spots. And while his adherence to a first-person perspective is admirable, there's only so many shots of the road ahead taken through a car windshield that we really need to see. Still, as a way to spend a couple of hours with one of cinema's titans, The Well sure beats listening to Bogdanovich relive the good old days yet again.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Review: Citizen Dog (2004, directed by Wisit Sasanatieng)

A Thai take on Amelie with a male blank slate for a hero and the surrealism cranked to 11, Citizen Dog (from my Western perspective anyway) gets hamstrung by its omnipresent narration. Unlike in Jeunet's films the narrator here adds very little, instead recapping what you just saw ten seconds ago. Granted, what you just saw might have been really strange in a cute, candy-colored way sort of way, but it wasn't inexplicable - the narration feels like someone didn't trust the audience's ability to keep up.

Still, a lot of the imagery is gorgeous, and any movie with a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking teddy bear can't be all bad.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Fest Preview

My quickie festival preview is up at AICN.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Review: Brothers of the Head (2005, directed by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe)

20-odd years after its birth, the mockumentary is finally starting to grow up a bit. There's no shame in its late development; if any genre needed an extended adolescence it was the one kicked off by This Is Spinal Tap. But you could see the first hints of maturity in the Mitch & Mickey storyline in A Mighty Wind - the humanity in their relationship was a far cry from exploding drummers and a man with two left feet.

Brothers of the Head ups the ante considerably. Based on a novel by Brian Aldiss, the film uses 'archival footage' and 'present-day interviews' to tell the story of twin brothers, plucked from obscurity by an unscrupulous but sentimental promoter and show biz lifer, who formed the heart of a band called the Bang Bang that became an underground legend and, like the Monks (not the Drugs in My Pocket guys, the other Monks) and the MC5, a key link in the early evolution of punk.

Did I say twins brothers? Of course I meant siamese twin brothers, because the band is initally all about the gimmick. Joined at the stomach, Tom is able to use both his arms and is trained as the lead guitarist; Barry, forced by anatomy to live his life peering over his brother's left shoulder, is the lead vocalist.

Make no mistake, Brothers of the Head has some, uhh, gut-bustingly funny bits in it, particularly the footage from Ken Russell's unfinished biopic Two-Way Romeo. But the film also doesn't shy away from the glimpses of darkness inherent in any rock 'n' roll tale of burning out and not fading away. The boys' manager physically abuses one (yes, just one) of the brothers to try and keep him in line. Birds, booze, pills and powder are everywhere, and take their toll on Tom and Barry. And their deaths, coming as alone as they could be and out of the spotlight, are nearly as poignent as the passing of any real-life Johnny Thunders or Nick Drake.

The other thing the movie gets exactly right is the music. The tunes off the Bang Bang's one and only album is perfect, raw and roaring and just on the edge of catching the lightning bolt Johnny Rotten and the boys rode into history. Hearing songs like Doola and Dawla, My Friend (You Cunt) and Two-Way Romeo reminds you of the first time you heard the Stooges or the New York Dolls - they're so spot-on perfect that it's impossible to tell which one was co-written by the Buzzcocks' Pete Shelley without peeking at the credits.

Special mention has to be made of the kids in the leads. Luke and Harry Treadaway are fantastic, probably the best portrayal of fucked-up twins since Jeremy Irons and Jeremy Irons. Tom and Barry are complete individuals, yet creepily intertwined (and not just at the waist) in that way all the greatest movie twins seem to be.

Brothers of the Head is dynamite, a look back at a band (and Ken Russell film) that never was, but probably should have been.

Review: The Proposition (2005, directed by John Hillcoat)

The thing everybody forgets about faustian bargains is that somebody is going to lose their soul. If the bargain is between a human and the Devil, the loser is easy to spot. When it's between two humans, though...

John Hillcoat, working from a Nick Cave script, has fashioned a very Aussie Western here. Not just in location - although the brutal heat of the OUtback is almost a character unto itself in the film - but in theme and feel as well. The Proposition is really the first Western I've seen to pick up the gauntlet Unforgiven threw down. There are no heroes here, only damaged people draped in shades of dark gray, with enough innocent bystanders around to make every choice they make a hard one.

Ray Winstone stars as Capt. Stanley, a policeman who, along with his wife (Emily Watson, radiantly fragile), moves to Australia to try and start a better life. Lost in a sea of lawlessness and moral uncertainty, he strikes a terrible bargain with Charles Murphy (Guy Pearce), the middle of three outlaw brothers. With his younger, naive sibling locked in a jail cell and awaiting the gallows after the gang brutally rapes and kills a townswoman, Stanley offers Charles a deal. He'll let both younger Murphy brothers go free, if Charles will track down his older brother Arthur (Danny Huston), the gang's black heart, and kill him.

The film follows two parallel tracks. Charles sets out into the heart of darkness to find his brother, never certain what he will do once he finds him. Meanwhile Stanley, desperately trying to keep his deal a secret from the enraged townspeople howling for Murphy blood, begins to disintegrate as the weight of the bargain he's struck bears down on him.

The Proposition is a taut, tight, messy, nasty piece of work, from Cave's excellent script on up. The stink of bodies rotting in the sun nearly wafts off the screen. No festering wound of human relations -- English/Irish, white/abo, male/female -- goes unpoked and unsalted. The performances are all top-notch, including John Hurt in a small role as a bounty hunter, although from my perspective Huston's work might be the most noteworthy (as I expected the least from him). Hillcoat's direction is brutally effective. No slow-motion violence here. Gunfire comes suddenly and shockingly, and tears apart a man's head when it does. This is truly not a film for the faint of heart.

Anyone with more than a passing interest in the evolution of the Western should see this film post-haste.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Review: Look Both Ways (2005, directed by Sarah Watt)

Yet another lives-of-loosely-connected-strangers flick, Look Both Ways is distinguishable only by its Aronofsky-wannabe montages that stand in for the leads' internal fretting about death. It's the kind of movie that tells you in an opening news broadcast that it's the hottest weekend in memory, but then doesn't bother making any of the actors look remotely uncomfortable from the heat, or even a bit sweaty.

If you dig dialogue scrubbed free of subtext, or cliches played off as deep insights into the human condition, this one's for you.