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My guilty pleasure
In the interests of full disclosure, I should confess I have a weakness for any film in which actresses in their mid 20s play teenagers, but when two of those actresses are Rose McGowan AND Rebecca Gayheart, how can a film not be watchable? Many commenters have complained that "Jawbreaker" was very similar to "Heathers" (1988) but not as good. So what? If you want to see a film just like "Heathers" then go watch "Heathers." Although generally panned by critics, "Jawbreaker" is nonetheless a cut above most 'high school' movies. The sound track fits the film better than is the case with most others of this genre. I particularly liked the use of Imperial Teen's "Yoo Hoo", and the playing of "Young at Heart" during Courtney's (McGowan) meltdown. The use of such irony and cross reference is enough to show the makers are not taking it all too seriously, but not so much that the film becomes camp. I'm curious as to the geographic distribution of the negative vis-a- vis positive comments. My bet is that those who are more familiar with L.A. high school life had a better appreciation for "Jawbreaker" than might those living elsewhere.

Pola X

To borrow from the film itself: "A raving morass that reeks of plagiarism."
I want very much to believe that the above quote (specifically, the English subtitle translation), which was actually written, not spoken, in a rejection letter a publisher sends to the protagonist, was meant to be self-referential in a tongue-in-cheek manner. But if so, director Leos Carax apparently neglected to inform the actors of the true nature of the film. They are all so dreadfully earnest in their portrayals that I have to conclude Carax actually takes himself seriously here, or else has so much disdain for everyone, especially the viewing audience, that he can't be bothered letting anyone in on the joke.

Some auteurs are able to get away with making oblique, bizarre films because they do so with élan and unique personal style (e.g., David Lynch and Alejandro Jodorowsky). Others use a subtler approach while still weaving surreal elements into the fabric of the story (e.g., Krzysztof Kieslowski, and David Cronenberg's later, less bizarre works). In Pola X, Carax throws a disjointed mess at the viewer and then dares him to find fault with it. Well, here it is: the pacing is erratic and choppy, in particular continuity is often dispensed with; superfluous characters abound (e.g., the Gypsy mother and child); most of the performances are overwrought; the lighting is often poor, particularly in the oft-discussed sex scene; unconnected scenes are thrust into the film for no discernible reason; and the list goes on.

Not to be completely negative, it should be noted that there were some uplifting exceptions. I liked the musical score, even the cacophonous industrial-techno music being played in the sprawling, abandoned complex to which the main characters retreat in the second half of the film (perhaps a reference to Andy Warhol's 'Factory' of the '60s?). Much of the photography of the countryside was beautiful, an obvious attempt at contrast with the grimy city settings. And, even well into middle-age, Cathering Deneuve shows that she still has 'it'. Her performance was also the only one among the major characters that didn't sink into bathos.

There was an earlier time when I would regard such films as "Pola X" more charitably. Experimentation is admirable, even when the experiment doesn't work. But Carax tries nothing new here; the film is a pastiche of elements borrowed from countless earlier films, and after several decades of movie-viewing and literally thousands of films later, I simply no longer have the patience for this kind of unoriginal, poorly crafted tripe. At this early moment in the 21st century, one is left asking: With the exception of Jean-Pierre Jeunet, are there *any* directors in France who know how to make a watchable movie anymore? Rating: 3/10.

Point Break

Good direction ill-served by poor acting and terrible script
The summary says it all from my point of view, but a minimum of ten lines are required so .... Director Kathryn Bigelow does have her moments during this film, using a visual style that comes close to that of her sadly under-appreciated earlier vampire flick "Near Dark" (1987). Unfortunately, the acting load is carried (or not) by three hams and a twinkie: Patrick Swayze, Keanu Reeves, Gary Busey, and Lori Petty. It's notable that the performance of the usually comically bad Swayze actually looks good in this film when compared to the others. The screenplay of W. Peter Iliff is horrendous. I notice that several commenters thought the film to be at least in part a satire, but I didn't get that impression. I think the script is just so awful it becomes unintentionally laughable. I must confess that I am at a loss to understand the rave reviews many have given this film, but it would be a very boring world if everyone had the same taste. Rating: 5/10.

To Live and Die in L.A.

Uneven but good
In "To Live and Die in L.A." (TLDLA), director William Friedkin picks up his exploration of the 'cop-as-antihero' theme 14 years after Gene Hackman portrayed Popeye Doyle in Friedkin's "The French Connection" (1971). Notably, Clint Eastwood's performance of a similarly rule-bending cop in "Dirty Harry" (1971) came out that same year. But unlike in these earlier films, the protagonist here, treasury agent Richard Chance, has no redeeming virtues to speak of. TLDLA is a wonderful example of early (pre-1990s) neo-noir. All the characters are morally or ethically compromised, which is suitable for a film based on currency counterfeiting. Everything here is phony, not just the money. Motives, relationships, loyalties, goals, etc. are all fluid and unenduring with the exception of Chance's single-minded obsession to collar counterfeiting expert Eric Masters after he kills Chance's partner. Chance sets the modern leitmotif for the law enforcement officer who believes his badge makes him invulnerable, both literally and morally. More recent examples are Harvey Keitel's character in Abel Ferrara's "Bad Lieutenant" (1992) and Denzel Washington's in Antoine Fuqua's "Training Day" (2001).

I saw this movie when it first came out and again on cable TV a couple of years later, but only recently has it finally been released on DVD. The scene that stuck in my mind all these years and so defines the film for me is not the ballyhooed car chase but the beautifully photographed sequence depicting the science, art, and craft of making funny money, done without dialogue. Cinematographer Robby Muller does a great job throughout the film (albeit he didn't photograph the car chase sequence) which is a significant accomplishment given that there wasn't a single studio set used in the production. The actors' performances often have an awkwardly realistic, almost 'cinema verite', quality because Friedkin wouldn't always end a shot when expected but would continue shooting, letting the actors continue the scene by improvisation. One can put this film under a microscope and pick it to death if one wanted but that misses the point of the work. It is intentionally expressionistic and realism is often sacrificed to maintain atmosphere. For example, Chance is driving a car with an automatic transmission but the rapid changes in the engine sounds used in the chase sequence are clearly those of a vehicle with a manual transmission because those fit the mood of the sequence better. The 'driving-against-traffic-on-the-freeway' portion of the chase also has a peculiarity (described as a "goof" by IMDb) that was actually done intentionally to add to the sense of confusion Friedkin wanted to convey. And yes, I am among those who believe Wang Chung's musical score was exactly right for this film.

Shot in some of the seedier areas of Los Angeles, TLDLA will provide a lot of fun for those Angelenos who want to play the 'name-that-location' game while watching it. A fairly comprehensive list is given in the "trivia" IMDb page attached to this film entry. And on a final note, many of the previous comments perpetrate a seriously incorrect credit. To set the record straight, Chance's love interest was Ruth Lanier (played by Darlanne Fluegel), not Bianca Torres (played by Debra Feuer). Torres was Eric Masters's girlfriend. Rating: 7/10.

Hakkyousuru kuchibiru

Not your average horror/comedy/soft-porn/kungfu/musical/mystery/action/thriller
I would have to say the most bizarre movie I've seen to date is Shinya Tsukamoto's "Tetsuo" (1988), but "Crazy Lips" comes in a close second. Writer Hiroshi Takahashi, director Hirohisa Sasaki, and producer Takashige Ichise all have a hand in piling genre upon genre in the making of this uncategorizable film. There's something for everybody here, and no hint as to what direction the movie is headed from one scene to the next, so just sit back and enjoy the ride. The only American-made films I've seen that come even remotely close to this amalgamation of forms are "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension" (1984) and "Six-string Samurai" (1998). If you like either of those, or even if you don't, then this movie is worth catching. Rating: 6/10.

La Puppe

Absolutely hilarious.
Chris Marker's "La Jetée" (1962) was my selection for all-time favorite film when I registered with the IMDb, and it still is. I have both versions (French & English language voice overs) in a total of three forms. When Terry Gilliam's "Twelve Monkeys" (1995) first came out, I disliked it intensely as a bad knockoff but have since come to accept it as the homage to Marker's film that Gilliam intended his work to be. With all that as preamble, I now write that no fan of the original masterpiece should be without Timothy Greenberg's fondly satiric takeoff, "La Puppe." It is funny enough to make me double over with laughter. Beginning with the same choral music that began "La Jetée" and using an English voice over with a faux French accent, this nine minute gem captures the essence of Marker's work in a manner that is both irreverent and admiring. The lead character is played by a stuffed toy dog and his mysterious love interest from the past is (ready?) ... a golden retriever. Enough said, it's not to be missed. It is available in both VHS and DVD-R; just do a web search with the title as the search string. Rating: 9/10.

Seul contre tous

Existentialism 101, or "Woe Man on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown"
In "I Stand Alone," Gaspar Noe, the latest director determined to ensconce himself as the 'enfant terrible' of European film-making, presents for the viewer's consideration The World's Angriest Man, played quite convincingly by Philippe Nahon assisted by the voice-over of Olivier Doran as his inner self. Purely in the context of film, this work is well-crafted and indicative of Noe's significant potential. Granted that he does borrow many of his techniques and much of his story line from other directors, he nonetheless shows enough innovation to be considered a serious talent. But as philosophy, this movie is notably puerile.

The Butcher, as the protagonist is known, has had a hard life. Now released from prison after committing a crime of violence while in a fit of anger, he has, at the age of 50, no job, no money, no family (aside from an institutionalized daughter), no friends, and no prospects. And things go downhill from there. But this is not a film about Jude the Obscure. No sir, this man is ANGRY! and we are made aware of it in part by occasional acts of violence, but mostly by a continual stream-of-consciousness narration in which all his bile is directed in scatter-gun fashion at the world in general. It is difficult to tell how much this character is emblematic of Noe's own beliefs; one hopes he isn't. However, one can't help getting the feeling that this film was made by a talented but malcontented teenager. You know the one we've all seen at some point: the petulant, sulking 15 year-old seething in the realization that he's the only one who 'gets it,' that everyone else is a complacent, shallow, bourgeois swine. But all of the Butcher's inflamed musings can be distilled down to a single, self-serving rationalization: "It's not my fault -- Society has made me the monster I am!" Rubbish. There have always been characters like the Butcher, and there always will be irrespective of the society in which they live. I'm old enough to have encountered several in my lifetime, with the added benefit that they don't bother to internalize their rants, spewing their invective at some unfortunate passerby or else at everyone at large. I might pity such individuals, but I don't feel that I owe them a damn thing. Imagine if everyone who has encountered hard times were to react in this manner. There is nothing wrong with the Butcher and his ilk that some counseling in Cognitive Therapy and perhaps a prescription for the proper pharmaceutical wouldn't do much to allay.

I have also seen Noe's "Irreversible" (2002), and it's a pity he has seemingly chosen to go the way of Von Trier, Haneke, and others of the modern 'Euroshock' school of film. Fortunately for Western European cinema, Spain still has several directors who know how to make superior films without trying to gouge the eyes out of the audience. Rating: 6/10.

Day of the Woman

Years ahead of its time, perhaps?
Shortly after witnessing the result of a gang rape, director Meir Zarchi set out to make a film depicting the ungilded brutality of such an act, and succeeded too well. In his "Day of the Woman," a young woman is savagely and repeatedly raped and beaten by a quartet of yokels who consequently get their comeuppance at her hands. It is so realistic in its rape scenes that it was banned in several jurisdictions. It's often referred to as a grind house film of the female rape/revenge genre, but I feel this is an unfair depiction of Zarchi's intent. Unfortunately, the distributors chose to market is as such, changing the title to "I Spit on Your Grave" and using a trailer that emphasized the sensational aspects of the film -- it doesn't even get the number of perpetrators right. Film critic Roger Ebert famously referred to it as "a vile bag of garbage," "a film without a shred of artistic distinction," "a movie so sick, reprehensible and contemptible that I can hardly believe it's playing in respectable theaters," and that "attending it was one of the most depressing experiences of my life." To be fair, much of Ebert's shock was elicited by the responses of some audience members rather than the film itself, but there it is. This is the movie everyone loves to hate.

Now fast forward a quarter of a century and compare the above with Ebert's comments on another film involving the horrific rape and beating of a young woman and an equally graphic act of revenge -- I'm referring to Gaspar Noe's "Irreversible" (2002): "it is therefore moral", "it is unflinchingly honest about the crime of rape. It does not exploit. It does not pander. ... 'Irreversible' is not pornography." Could an additional 24 years of professional film-viewing have made Ebert more reflective and less reactionary? Not a chance. In his review of "Enough" (2002), Ebert wrote in an otherwise thoroughly negative commentary that it is "a step or two above 'I Spit On Your Grave'". So why is "Day of the Woman" a "vile bag of garbage" and "Irreversible" "unflinchingly honest" and "moral"? Because, according to Ebert, the acts in the latter film are shown in, get this, reverse chronological order! That's it; that's the sole significant difference. The moral to be drawn by all aspiring film makers: make an honestly violent film on a shoestring budget with no-name actors and no musical score and you will be reviled in perpetuity as an exploitive, depraved pervert. But make the same film with A-list European stars, include lots of tumbling camera movement, and (very important!) use a nonlinear story form and you too can be hailed as a cinematic genius whose work is nominated for the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival. What utter nonsense!

The point of this commentary is not to beat up on Roger Ebert. He is simply a convenient foil who has written reviews of both films that are easily accessible from this web site. The point is to show what I consider the deep hypocrisy of those who denigrate Zarchi's work while lauding the films of Noe, Michael Haneke, and similarly misanthropic directors of the shock school of film, most of whom, notably, are European. I doubt that "Day of the Woman" will ever be added to the National Film Registry, but it certainly doesn't deserve the drubbing it has received. The purpose of the film is to depict the act of rape as the crime that it is, stripped of any rationalization or euphemistic metaphor. In fact, the second half of the film, involving the victim's revenge, has the appearance of being added as an afterthought, one that is necessary to make the film marketable. Moreover, comparisons with Wes Craven's "Last House On The Left" (1972) are inappropriate because Craven's film was a direct ripoff of (or, if one prefers, 'homage' to) Ingmar Bergman's "The Virgin Spring" (1960). While "Day Of The Woman" has numerous flaws, it's biggest seems to be that it was made long before such films became hailed as artistic. Rating: 4/10 (by way of comparison, I give "Irreversible" (2002) 3/10).

Smilla's Sense of Snow

Two thirds of a great film.
Bille August's "Smilla's Sense of Snow" starts off with great promise. An opening sequence that's a terrific hook segues into an introduction of the character of Smilla Jasperson, played perfectly by the lovely Julia Ormond. Smilla is self-isolated, deeply unhappy, and unapproachable. Her only real friend is the young Inuit boy, Isaiah, who dies suddenly under suspicious circumstances, and Smilla determines to uncover the reasons for his death. For the first two reels, this film is a terrific mystery story with good pacing, fine acting, and evocative cinematography. Characters with uncertain motives come and go as the story unfolds, most played by a fine stable of talented actors. But then in the third reel, the film collapses. I'm not talking about a slow descent into mediocrity here; I'm talking about a precipitous nosedive. Out of the blue, the story suddenly switches to an action/thriller format that is poorly written, directed, and edited. New, undeveloped characters are suddenly thrown into the mix, each a deus ex machina as the increasingly unrealistic plot requires. The film's denouement, in which the underlying mystery is revealed, is so scientifically ridiculous both in terms of biology and especially in physics that I felt thoroughly cheated. It's as if the entire enterprise were rushed to completion due to a looming shortage of time, money, and interest. What a pity. Even so, the first two thirds of the film stand up well on their own, and my rating is based on that. Rating: 7/10.

Assassination Tango

Asinine tango, more like it.
When I first saw Robert Duvall's earlier "The Apostle" (1997), I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt being that it was his first effort as both lead actor and director. Mistakes were made and I thought he would learn from them. Boy, was I wrong. In "Assassination Tango" he not only repeats all his earlier mistakes, but adds to and compounds them in the process. There are four main credits in a film (writer, producer, director, and lead actor) and a useful rule of thumb is that if any one individual has at least three of those, the film is almost guaranteed to be bad. With all four credits to his name, Duvall's effort shows just how true this can be.

The pacing is terrible; scenes go on for much too long. Notably, these scenes all involve Duvall's character, an aging hit man who may be ready to finally retire from the business. Duvall proves again, as he did in "The Apostle", that he is an actor in desperate need of direction. When he directs himself; i.e., when he's receiving no direction at all, he is just awful. In Duvall's portrayal, the character John J. is simply unbelievable.

He is supposed to be an experienced assassin who worked 10 years in Guatemala (from which I infer as a U.S. government black ops agent) and you would think such an individual would know how not to attract attention to himself. But not the way Duvall plays him. He flies off the handle at the least provocation: a colleague tells him he's looking tired and Duvall gets all up in his face over it; he's told that consideration was given to sending someone else on his latest assignment and he goes ballistic, spouting enough information about his past to get himself convicted in any courtroom; he learns he can't return home from his assignment in Argentina for another two weeks and he repeatedly stomps a pay phone in a public street. As played by Duvall, John J. is constantly running off at the mouth; he can't shut up for five minutes even when he's alone. This is a top of the line killer who knows how to stay under the radar? The female lead is played by newcomer Luciana Pedraza who, while certainly accomplished as a dancer (assuming she did her own dance numbers), is entirely lacking in screen charisma. A flatter, more two-dimensional portrayal would be hard to imagine. Overall, the acting in this film can best be summed up by noting that Ruben Blades gives the best performance of the cast. When was the last time that was ever said about him? The film's one redeeming grace are the artful dance sequences, but then you can just watch a song & dance film if that's what you're after. Rating: 4/10.


Surprisingly good.
With "Dogville," Lars von Trier treats viewers to yet another tale of an angelic innocent degraded, despoiled, and otherwise victimized by those around her and the circumstances in which she is placed, although in this case the innocent ends up having teeth. With the earlier, similar works "Breaking the Waves" (1996) and "Dancer in the Dark" (2000), and to a lesser extent "The Idiots" (1998), one can only hope that this is the final chapter in this theme with which von Trier appears to be obsessed. Frankly, it has become tiresome.

Perhaps dissatisfied with the vagaries that can arise from his self-imposed Dogme 95 rules when shooting outdoors, von Trier enters a Brechtian phase with "Dogville," choosing to shoot it as a play with minimalist sets. To some extent, they remind me of the similarly simple yet evocative sets the Japanese/Irish-American artist Isamu Noguchi made for the dancer Martha Graham who was active during the time period of this film, the 1930s. And I think this was a wise choice, certainly as it helps minimize the technical gaffs that are part and parcel of von Trier's Dogme years, although there are still more than a few here: the editing is sloppy (unless von Trier believes that jump-cutting is still artsy cool) and continuity errors abound. However, these are small complaints about an otherwise well-crafted work. The large ensemble cast performs well for the most part. I found the performances of Ben Gazzara and Stellan Skarsgard particularly notable, and somehow von Trier was able to make the always-annoying Jeremy Davies refrain from his ubiquitous twitches and idiosyncratic hand movements. Now _that's_ directorial genius. John Hurt's voice-over narration was also spot on. I did not find the length of the film burdensome; I never lost interest in the story as it progressed. Most of all, I was surprised to find that I wasn't put off by the film as I have been with most of von Trier's works.

From a political standpoint, I didn't find "Dogville" to be particularly anti-American as some have claimed, certainly no more so than Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs" (1971) can be said to be anti-English, or Guy de Maupassant's depiction in some of his stories of some particularly loathsome rural villagers can be said to be anti-French. I think the theme of small-minded cruelty arising from ignorant parochialism can be considered universal. As for the sequence of still photographs of dire poverty flashed during the closing credits, with David Bowie singing "Young Americans" in the background, many of those shots (perhaps most of them) were taken during the Great Depression during which the film is set, and the Depression affected the entire world. And if, for the sake of argument, it was von Trier's intention to be 'anti-American,' then he has impaled himself on his own sword. At the end of the film, who sits in final judgment of the residents of Dogville? Those with the guns; i.e., those with the military power. If the USA is indeed the world's sole superpower, is von Trier then saying that it has the right to sit in judgment of the rest of the world? I should hope not! Nonetheless, I can see how America with its element of social Darwinism might seem a scary place to anyone born into, reared in, and (as far as I know) continues to live in a cradle-to-grave welfare state as is the case with von Trier, particularly since he has never lived in nor even visited the USA. But consider the following thought experiment: if one were to visit the capital of each of the world's nations, which embassy would most likely have the greatest number of applicants for visas to move to that embassy's country? Here's a hint -- it wouldn't be Denmark's. Rating: 7/10.


Let's drop Damon, Affleck, and Van Sant in a desert for real and film THAT.
Two individuals on a hike in the desert decide to leave the marked trail and find their own route to "the thing." They do this without taking water, food, a map, or even a compass, and shortly after deciding that they don't want to get to "the thing" after all find themselves hopelessly lost -- Dumb & Dumber trying to be Lewis and Clark. One even manages to get himself stuck up on a rock, like a cat in a tree that can't figure out how it got there. And the audience is supposed to take all of it seriously? This 103 minute vanity piece by writers/actors Matt Damon & Casey Affleck and writer/director Gus Van Sant could easily have been shortened to 40 minutes or less without losing anything except much of its tedium. It's not that I don't like slow movies; I thought David Cronenberg's "Spider" (2002) was a terrific film. But slow AND pointless? It's as if the three principles said to themselves, "Let's see how boring a movie we can make and still have it hailed by art-house film patrons and critics!" Like a thirst-crazed wanderer in this desert of a flick, I found myself mumbling "it must be a metaphor, an allegory, something like that," in a desperate attempt to find some redeeming virtue with the 'script.' Too bad, all I was left with were some pretty, panoramic desert shots and a mildly interesting musical score. Is it possible to make an engaging film of two innocents wandering in a desert with lots of great photography and not much else going for it? Yes, indeed. Nicolas Roeg did it over 30 years ago with "Walkabout" (1971). Gus Van Sant doesn't even come close. Rating: 3/10.


Snuff porn masquerading as feminist art.
This tawdry little pornographic home movie shot on digital video features two female protagonists who come across as Thelma and Louise (of the eponymous 1991 film) morphing into the archetypes for Mickey and Mallory of "Natural Born Killers" (1994). With a screenplay that could have been written by Andrea Dworkin, "Baise Moi" depicts the sex/crime/murder spree of our heroines as they emulate the 'black widow' style of fornication, often killing their partners after copulation. What fun! Unfortunately, it lacks any of the aesthetic appeal of Ridley Scott's "Thelma and Louise," any of the crazy but mesmerizing extravagance of Oliver Stone's "Natural Born Killers," or even any of the mordant wit of Remy Belvaux's "Man Bites Dog" (1992). It seems to be very much a film made by angry women, featuring angry women, with a target audience of other angry women, particularly of the man-hating-radical-lesbian-feminist variety. Veteran 'adult film' actress Karen Lancaume does have some nice moments in the role of Nadine. At one point, while wearing fetching lingerie, she does a Travis Bickle imitation with gun and mirror that is both chilling and amusing. Alas, these moments are few and far between. I think I'd prefer to view some of the films starring co-writer/co-director Coralie. Who could resist watching such titles as "Pure Anal" and "Cunt Sucking Sluts 5"?

The DVD notes for "Baise Moi" indicated that this film had actually been banned in France (Oh my!). But I'm of the opinion this wasn't directly due to its extreme sex and violence. Rather, I think it was done to prevent a national crisis. In this film, every guy who pulls his pants down has an organ at least nine inches long (the minimum length requirement for any decent pornographic movie). Given that every Frenchman considers himself the world's greatest lover (or so I'm told by a female friend of mine who lived in France for a time), one can only imagine the ego-deflating horror endured by male members (no pun intended) of French audiences as they are forced to compare their own physical manhood to this parade of centaurs, one after the other. An epidemic of depression would sweep the country. Work stoppages would ensue. The government would collapse, perhaps even French society itself (mon Dieu!). Clearly, such a possibility couldn't be allowed. Vive la France! Rating: 4/10.


"It's nothing new for trash like you!"
A singularly unusual work, Harmony Korine's docu-narrative "Gummo" could pass as the love child of Diane Arbus and David Lynch. Using a mix of professional and nonprofessional actors, the lives of those who make up the lower socio-economic strata of Xenia, Ohio, are played out in squalor and absurdity. For those who doubt such characters exist in real life, I have three words: Ohio River Valley. Having lived in the southern parts of Ohio and Indiana for 11 years, I can attest that there are indeed such folks. Doubters should also compare the characters in "Gummo" with the real-life participants of Steve James's documentary "Stevie" (2002), set in southern Illinois. Certainly flawed, "Gummo" nonetheless is compelling viewing. I found myself drawn in further and further as the film progressed. Rating: 7/10.

In the Cut

Campion tries Ferrara, badly.
Jane Campion appears to borrow heavily from the work of fellow director Abel Ferrara in "In the Cut." While watching this film, I found myself continually making comparisons with Ferrara's earlier "Fear City" (1984). The film is a dark, murky, and seedy exploration into the frustrated sexuality of the lead character, played by Meg Ryan who must think the world is ready to know that her perky personality comes fully accessorized with perky breasts and a perky butt. The plot is largely irrelevant, serving mostly as a means of introducing the other, essentially peripheral characters. The pacing is glacial; paint dries faster than this film moves forward. It's made even worse when one can deduce the main points after the first thirty minutes -- who will be a victim, who will turn out to be the perpetrator, who is an obvious suspect but will turn out not to be the actual killer, and so on. The photography is very good but there is far too much close-in hand-held camera work, a tedious fad among many current directors who have fallen under the spell of the European cartel of Dogme 95 adherents. (Thanks, Lars, thanks a lot.) I am no great fan of Ryan, but Jennifer Jason Leigh certainly merits being in movies better than this one. In short, I couldn't wait for this film to be over. It's not a thriller, it's not erotica, it's just boring. Rating: 4/10.


The "user rating" is accurate.
All the previous comments seem to have been written by members of a Tom Zuber Fan Club. Don't be fooled; the user rating (3.9 as of this writing) gives a much more accurate indication as to the quality of the film. With the exception of Paul Shields, the acting is at a high school drama class level. The script is pedestrian and what humor there is is sophomoric. This is a well-intentioned but badly executed 'homage' to the Coen Brothers style of film-making, imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. It's not terrible for a first time feature-length work, but I certainly wasn't entertained, intrigued, or otherwise interested in the least while watching "Lansdown". I found it to be a very ordinary bit of work with nothing really to recommend it. Rating: 3/10.


Darkly laconic.
"Nadja" falls into a category of films I would describe as 'vampire movies for adults.' Viewers seeking an action-packed gorefest along the lines of "From Dusk Till Dawn" (1996) or "Blade II" (2002) should bypass "Nadja". Moody, opiated, and dreamily ethereal, it is similar in this respect to Guy Maddin's more recent "Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary" (2002) and not most other modern vampire flicks. Its emphasis on the emotional and evocative rather than physical aspects of the genre puts it in the company of Tony Scott's "The Hunger" (1983) and Po-Chih Leong's "Immortality" (aka "The Wisdom of Crocodiles") (1998). Shot on black-and-white film, a dying art form, with a good musical score by Portishead, it avoids sinking into pretentiousness with occasional, self-parodying irony (example: "He says he's dying ... for a cigarette."). A major drawback to the film is director Michael Almereyda's overuse of the Pixelvision camera, a technology he has used in the past and should have left there. The acting is spotty, but that's of little importance in a film emphasizing atmosphere over character portrayal. Elina Lowensohn in the title role and Peter Fonda as Dr. Van Helsing (played as he has never been played before) do stand out from the rest of the cast. I'd rate this as 'must see' for aficionados of vampire films, if only to take a break from the less imaginative schlock that overwhelms the genre. Rating: 7/10.

Bowling for Columbine

Michael Moore shoots himself in the foot.
Prior to viewing "Bowling for Columbine," I knew of Michael Moore's work only by reputation, not having seen any of his previous films, nor read any of his books, nor even catching his work of performance art during the Academy Awards ceremony. What is immediately clear is that he is not a documentarian but rather a propagandist. This is not necessarily a bad thing insofar as he does not claim to be otherwise, as far as I know, but "Bowling for Columbine" is no more a true documentary than are the works Leni Riefenstahl made for the German Nazi Party during the 1930s.

Moore is clearly passionate about his subject, or more accurately what he pretends the subject to be -- what he and others perceive to be the subculture of fear, violence, and firearms in American society. The actual subject of the film is, however, Moore himself -- his opining, editorializing, grandstanding, and manipulations. What other 'documentarian' makes himself the center of his own work to such an extent? Michael Apted? Errol Morris? Chris Marker? Michael Moore is to documentary film-making what Geraldo Rivera is to electronic journalism.

Irrespective of either Moore's or the viewer's political inclinations, he does himself, his audience, and his purported subject matter a disservice by portraying the issues in such a polemical, one-sided manner. As he travels around the USA and Canada asking why there are so many more deaths by gunshot in America than elsewhere, it apparently never occurs to him to ask qualified sociologists and psychologists who have studied that matter (with the lone exception of Barry Glassner -- a sample size of one). There is certainly no lack of research done on the subject. But no, much easier (and funnier!) to trip up unsuspecting individuals, particularly ill-educated ones, with rhetorical trickery and ambush interviews and then splice bits of film together for maximum effect. There is no doubt where Moore's sentiments lie even though the film looks as if it were made by someone afflicted with adult attention deficit disorder, highly scattered and disconnected as it unfolds. Those sentiments are made clear in the first two minutes. There are a number of very effective moments however, both tragically and comedically, but not always in the manner Moore may have intentioned. In two instances, some Canadian residents state that they still don't lock the doors to their respective homes even though they have been broken into, vandalized, and burgled. Moore apparently found this attitude admirable. I found it hilarious, like watching someone continuing to park his automobile on railroad tracks even after a train has demolished his previous one.

I expect this film received the awards it did more for its "political correctness" than for any artistic or even social merit. Certainly the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not known to have a preponderance of deep thinkers after all, and as for a 13-minute standing ovation at Cannes, that's to be expected. This film is perfect fodder for those who love to hate America (see, for example, the comments below by "mrealfse" (Norway), "Gregory Goldlust" (Brazil), and "Josefin" (Sweden)). But hey, that's free speech, protected by the first amendment of the US Constitution, something to consider by those who would rescind the second amendment ("... the right of the people to keep and bear arms ..."). The Bill or Rights is not something to be tampered with.

So, see this film for whatever reasons suit you, but for bona fide, unbiased documentary film-making, one is much better off catching any of the segments from the PBS news show "Frontline." Rating: 4/10.

The Good Thief

Stylish disappointment.
I viewed Neil Jordan's uneven heist caper "The Good Thief" on DVD and after reading the comments here am relieved to learn that the incomprehensible dialogue was not due to disc or equipment malfunction on my end. That addresses the film's major flaw. Jordan seems to have lost his way in the making of this film, giving the appearance of having borrowed heavily from numerous other directors -- the annoying use of artsy technique (freeze-frame ending of shots, canted camera angles, shots taken through colored filters, etc.) screams 'Steven Soderbergh'; garishly colored interior sets (Dario Argento); a pervading dark atmosphere (Mike Figgis); and an over reliance on the musical soundtrack to carry the mood of the film (Wes Anderson). The result is a bizarre hybrid with multiple fathers, but none of them Jordan himself. The confluence of plot and characters defies credibility, but it probably was not meant to be realistic in the first place.

I am a great fan of Jordan, but he is maddeningly inconsistent. Even so, I have noticed a defining trend in his works: those films set in Ireland or the U.K. range from good to brilliant (e.g., "Mona Lisa" (1986), "The Crying Game" (1992), "The Butcher Boy" (1997)), while those set overseas range from outright clunkers to minor disappointments (e.g., "We're No Angels" (1989), "In Dreams" (1999), "The Good Thief" (2002)). So Neil, boyo, stick to the old sod where the wind may always be at your back. Rating: 6/10.


Cronenberg's best since "Dead Ringers"
David Cronenberg generally makes two types of movies: his heavily surreal, literally visceral, 'wet' films (e.g., "Videodrome" (1983), "The Fly" (1986), "Naked Lunch" (1991), "eXistenZ" (1999)); and his more cerebral 'dry' films (e.g., "The Dead Zone" (1983), "Dead Ringers" (1988), "M. Butterfly" (1993), "Crash" (1996)). "Spider" definitely falls into the latter category, for which I have greater appreciation, and I consider it one of his best works to date.

Rarely does a film have the elements of writing, acting, directing, editing, set design, musical score, and cinematography come together in such a perfectly seamless whole. The entire cast performs flawlessly; there wasn't a single mediocre performance in the lot. While some commenters felt that Ralph Fiennes portrayal of the adult Dennis "Spider" Clegg was overwrought or purely 'method', I found it completely convincing. With virtually no dialogue for his character, he must play him solely through body language, physical idiosyncrasies, and the eyes, and he never falls out of character. Miranda Richardson is a jewel of an actress here. The pace of the film is extremely slow, but this actually works in its favor if the viewer can adjust to it. This movie should not be seen by anyone who has time-management anxieties or otherwise has 'things on their mind' while he or she is viewing it.

Like Cronenberg's other works, "Spider" is a highly stylized, expressionistic film. Howard Shore's musical score conveys a sense of quiet tension throughout, and the exterior shots in which we see modern-day Spider are usually otherwise unpopulated, emblematic of his complete isolation. The film is extremely subtle in several ways. For example, in the scene where Spider returns to the doctor in the mental hospital the missing shard of glass from the broken pane, the latter drily comments, "You can put your eye out with that." The irony of this line can only be appreciated if one is familiar with the story of Oedipus Rex and its origin for the Freudian term 'Oedipal complex' that is an underlying theme of the film. Similarly, a previous commenter noted the outsize shoes worn by Spider -- the name "Oedipus" is Greek for "swollen foot." I expect one will need to see this movie more than once to fully appreciate it.

I'm a bit surprised that no one has yet commented on the parallels between "Spider" and Neil Jordan's equally excellent "The Butcher Boy" (1997); both films deal with a boy's descent into madness, albeit in very different ways. And Spider's crabbed writing in indecipherable runes or hieroglyphics immediately brought to mind the real life behavior of Robert Crumb's mentally disturbed brother Charles in Terry Zwigoff's brilliant documentary "Crumb" (1994). For those unfamiliar with Cronenberg's works, I would not recommend "Spider" as a first-time experience; he's a director that can take getting used to and his earlier works might be a better starting point. But for those who do know him or for those who are willing to take a chance, "Spider" is highly recommended. Rating -- 8/10.

Funny Games

So these two sociopaths walk into a bar ...
Michael Haneke's "Funny Games" is a film of promise that ultimately fails to deliver, both on the level of social commentary and purely as film. An exercise in cinematic agitprop, it is meant to make clear that the willful viewing of modern violent films is an act of voyeurism bordering on the obscene. But by the same logic then, so is the act of reading. Scenes of horrific cruelty and violence have been portrayed in literature for thousands of years and across many cultures prior to the invention of the motion picture camera. Is Haneke also saying that one should not read the works of Homer, Sophocles, or Shakespeare; or just the softcover pulp sold in porn shops? Like that of most other social realists, Haneke's approach is as subtle as a train wreck to ensure that even the slack-jawed dullards among us won't fail to get the point. While much more common among European 'auteurs', this form of finger-wagging didacticism that sends award juries at Cannes into rhapsody is not unique to the region between the Atlantic Ocean and the Ural Mountains. After all, America has Oliver Stone, for better or worse.

In common with many other viewers, I found this film difficult to watch, but for very different reasons. The acting varies from adequate to excellent, depending on the scene. And while moderately well-directed, the story is very poorly written. The film abounds with plot holes, loose strings, poor pacing, and highly unrealistic character reactions. In an early scene, Fred the neighbor comes over with Paul to help Georg the Elder put his boat in the lake. During this sequence, the camera moves in on a shot of a knife being knocked onto the deck. Why? This particular knife plays no further role in the film, so what's the point? Is Haneke perhaps making an allusion to Roman Polanski's "Knife in the Water" (1963)? The next scene is the egg debacle between Anna and Peter, after which Paul makes another entrance, and subsequently Georg the Elder appears. But where's good neighbor Fred? We don't know; he's just gone. Or has there been a significant passage of time between the boat and the egg scenes? Is it the next day? We are not given any indication. When Georg the Younger makes his escape, he is unable to get over the fence around the house, having a vertical leap of only three inches, if even that. Speaking from personal experience, I can assure you that even a child is capable of extraordinary feats of athleticism if there is enough adrenalin pumping through his veins. Following the boy's death and the departure of Peter and Paul, Georg the Elder, handicapped by and in excruciating pain with his broken leg, is helped by Anna as they slooooowly make their way across the short distance between the couch and the stairs. It takes several minutes. Why must Georg get downstairs? Wouldn't most men shout at their wives to get out while they could and get help? It's not as if he doesn't know he's unambulatory. But later, during Anna's absence, Georg is miraculously able to get back *up* the stairs unaided to drape a sheet over his son's corpse. Perhaps he took some aspirin in the interim. Meanwhile, Anna is outside the fence of a neighbor's house, screaming for help to no avail. But the bars of the fence are spaced widely enough so that she could shimmy between them and go up to the house and bang on the door (remember: "no flab"). Does she do so? Not in Haneke's world. There were times when I groaned out loud while watching this mess of a script. As for the antagonists, well a pair of smirking, post-adolescent boys in short shorts and white gloves, each as physically threatening as a bowl of pudding, is just not convincing. This pair brings to mind the adage that one cannot be a victim unless one is willing to be victimized. For a far more memorable portrayal of human depravity, I recommend viewers watch Dennis Hopper's performance in "Paris Trout" (1991).

It's one thing for Haneke to lecture his audience, but to do so in such an unoriginal manner detracts from the validity of his message, making it almost risible. Much like his later "The Piano Teacher" (2001), "Funny Games" is a highly derivative film; there is nothing new here: a child's bloody corpse is shown on screen -- Sam Peckinpah's "Major Dundee" (1965). Violence and its effects are not realistically portrayed, here's what it's really like! -- done, again by "Bloody" Sam Peckinpah ("The Wild Bunch" 1969). This was also the entire point of the extended fight scene in Alfred Hitchcock's "Torn Curtain" (1966). People behave irrationally when under duress -- the underlying premise of the Coens' "Blood Simple" (1984). The homicidal criminals among us are otherwise very ordinary people -- John McNaughton's truly chilling masterwork "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer" (1986). Worst of all, Haneke does not have the excuse of callow youth. He's old enough to be aware of the work of other film makers, and unless he's spent most of his life in some secluded hamlet in the Tyrolean Alps, there's no reason why he couldn't do his homework better.

Between Haneke's heavy-handed hectoring and the numerous flaws in the script, I am tempted to give "Funny Games" a low rating, but will give it a middling one instead. As clumsy as he is about it, I do believe Haneke has something to say and his effort is an honest one. It could be much worse. It could be a film by Lars Von Trier. Rating: 5/10.

Cremaster 2

David Lynch + Alejandro Jodorowsky = Matthew Barney's Cremaster 2
In the second film of the five-part Cremaster cycle (chronologically the fourth made), Matthew Barney indulges his obsession with Gary Gilmore, the murderer who made legal history by insisting that his execution proceed in spite of efforts by the American Civil Liberties Union and others to postpone it, if not rescind it altogether. Does an individual have the right to insist on his own state-sanctioned death?

The film opens with Gilmore's parents visiting a medium of some sort, segues into a heavy metal/Goth band with lots of bees, moves on to the reenactment of the first of two murders Gilmore committed in Utah (that of gas station attendant Max Jensen; ironically, it was the second murder for which Gilmore was tried, convicted, and executed), and effectively ends with Gilmore's symbolic execution. Interspersed throughout are scenes involving Harry Houdini (Norman Mailer), from whom Gilmore's mother claimed descent.

Although Gilmore was intelligent (reputedly with an IQ of 130) and artistically talented, he was also an alcoholic habitual criminal completely lacking in impulse control. Barney himself plays the role of Gilmore (what a surprise!) and the casting of Norman Mailer is inspired. Some may remember that Mailer was instrumental in securing the early release from prison of Jack Henry Abbott who authored "In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison." Mailer felt such a talented individual should be given special consideration. Shortly after his release, Abbott stabbed a deli worker to death because he had the temerity to tell Abbott he couldn't use the employees' bathroom. Thanks, Norman.

With panoramic shots of the Utah salt flats, the western setting is reminiscent of the surreal films of Alejandro Jodorowsky set in Mexico (e.g., "El Topo (1970), "Santa Sangre" (1989)) as well as the latter part of David Lynch's "Wild at Heart" (1990), and there are hints of David Cronenberg's influence in the early scene involving Gilmore's parents. In one scene, the viewer is treated to some fine Texas two-step dancing by a couple who clearly know their way about it, and there is one notable use of theremin and modern synthesizer music that slowly climbs in pitch, reaching a physically uncomfortable sonic range before ascending to the frequencies privy only to dogs and bats. Very artsy and a bit overwrought, Cremaster 2 is the kind of work one expects from Barney. Rating: 6/10.

Cremaster 1

David Lynch + the Coen Brothers = Matthew Barney's Cremaster 1
This, the first in Barney's five-part Cremaster cycle of films (but the second made; the cycle is not numbered in chronological order), blends the choreography of a Busby Berkeley musical placed in an off-kilter context, and in so doing reminded me of the Coen Brothers' movies, with the slow-paced weirdness of early David Lynch. None of the Cremaster films employ dialogue -- they are essentially visual/aural experiences. This one suffers badly from poor cinematography, on several occasions being just on the edge of going out of focus. Of course, that might have been intentional. Moreover, the print I viewed was in bad shape even though it was advertised as being "brand new." If it was, then the master it was made from must be in a sorry state indeed. There is no plot to speak of; after all, this is an "art" film, so one just has to sit back and enjoy the imagery. How one interprets it is purely subjective, of course, although the overriding emphasis on genitalia and reproduction is impossible to miss. I consider this the weakest film in the cycle, but fortunately it is relatively brief at forty minutes. Rating: 5/10.

Morons from Outer Space

Better than its rating implies.
In director Mike Hodges's only openly comedic film to date, Anlgo-American pop culture of the '70s and early '80s is mercilessly lampooned. From "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (1977) to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (1975) to David Bowie as the avatar of Ziggy Stardust, nothing escapes a satirical mauling by Hodges and writers/actors Griff Rhys Jones and Mel Smith. On the surface, much of the humor appears to be at the level of Benny Hill, but it is actually much more subtle in its subtext, addressing the mindlessness of celebrity worship, the nature of friendship, the willful self-delusion that can arise from one's own expectations, and the fleetingness of fame. With satire more subtle than seen in similar, American films of the same period (e.g., "This is Spinal Tap" (1984)), "Morons from Outer Space" may not be to everyone's taste. I will be the first to admit that British humor is an acquired taste for many of us non-Brits, but I found this film far funnier than many recent American comedies that have received rave reviews ("Meet the Parents" (2000), "Something about Mary" (1998), "Analyze This" (1999), etc.). Any viewer willing to expend the effort to actually concentrate on what is going on and being said in the film will be amply rewarded. The most difficult part of viewing this movie is finding it, a problem with many of Hodges's works. Rating: 7/10.

The Salton Sea

Stylish neo-noir.
The Salton Sea is a hypersaline artificial body of water accidentally created when engineers lost control of the Colorado River flow with which they were replenishing irrigation canals in California's Imperial Valley. For two years (1905-1907), the Colorado River was uncontrollably diverted from its natural course, filling the Salton Trough (part of the San Andreas Fault) before finally being set back on course. Since then, the Salton Sea continues to be replenished by irrigation runoff with no means of outflow except evaporation. It lies approximately 130 miles northeast of San Diego at the lowest point of the Sonoran Desert (278 feet below sea level). In that part of the world, the temperatures in summer, effectively April through November, can reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit, or even higher. In recent years, it has experienced massive fish and bird kills. In short, the Salton Sea is an apt metaphor for Hell ... which is just where Danny Parker/Tom Van Allen (Val Kilmer) finds himself at the beginning of this film, surrounded by flames. "The Salton Sea" is a highly stylized movie in which nearly all elements are executed well. The acting is generally excellent. Kilmer in the lead role does his best work since "Tombstone", and Vincent D'Onofrio, an actor for whom I don't ordinarily care, is utterly convincing as the demented crank dealer Pooh Bear. He was so good I forgot I was watching D'Onofrio. Excellent supporting performances are contributed by Peter Sarsgaard as Danny/Tom's best friend, Doug Hutchison and Anthony LaPaglia as the two L.A. County Sheriff's deputies for whom Danny snitches, and Adam Goldberg as tweaker-in-residence Kujo. Even the minor characters of Creeper (Ricky Trammell), Big Bill (Josh Todd), and the gun seller (Mpho Koaho) are portrayed to perfection. My only complaint is that Deborah Kara Unger simply wasn't able to pull off her part as the strung-out lowlife Colette, perhaps because she's just too beautiful to be convincing in such a role. As an anti-parallel, imagine Danny Trejo cast as James Bond.

Cinematography and editing were top notch, and the production design for this film was fantastic, from the diseased walls of Danny/Tom's apartment to the Level 4 biohazard lab in the 'Kujo's Big Heist' segment, with technicians wearing space suits that look like they came directly from Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey". Even the smallest details were done with style, such as the flames cascading down Danny/Tom's arm from the sunburst tattoo centered on the scar of his shoulder wound. The intricate plot of Tony Gayton's script requires the viewer's suspension of disbelief at some points, but not enough to detract significantly from the overall merit of the movie. This is a very strong feature film debut for director D.J. Caruso, and I look forward to his future work. One of the best films I've seen in the last three years, "The Salton Sea" is definitely worth watching. Rating: 8/10

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