My Month in Review: April '11

Nohoi Oron (State of Dogs)
Peter Brosens & Dorjkhandyn Turmunkh, 1997
An extremely difficult Brosens vs. Brosens ranking decision for the top spot this month (and not just because I think the "Altiplano" screencap would make for a better thumbnail, I swear)! This glimpse of Ulan Bator and its outlying regions, caught through the limbo between a stray dog's death and rebirth as a human, conveys contemporary urban Mongolia - electrification and disconnection, modern rationales and aging mysticisms. "State of Dogs" is thoroughly engaging - a gorgeous must-see that has me near-speechlessly impassioned.

Peter Brosens & Jessica Hope Woodworth, 2008
The most narratively driven of Brosens' (and Woodworth's, for that matter) directorial efforts thus far, where "Altiplano" limits itself by putting forth a more finite story (finite when directly compared to the more openly poetic "Khadak" or "State of Dogs", anyway), it prominently features some of Brosens' greatest cinematographic accomplishments yet, both majestically static and intricately mobile. An enchantingly and devastatingly beautiful film.

The Thing
John Carpenter, 1982
Like Ray Bradbury, Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft brought together through a persistently tense Ennio Morricone score, "The Thing" absolutely lives up to its own hype and more. With some of the best  and most unique suspense, most insane special effects (practical ones!) and most interesting concepts I've seen in horror, the only pity is the apparent absence of maniacal meticulousness a la Stanley Kubrick's (strong "The Shining" vibes here, regardless). Carpenter's rough-around-the-edges qualities aren't without their charms, though, and for my money "The Thing" is actually a fair bit better than his "Halloween".

Edmund Elias Merhige, 1990
Though many of his films are worthily iconic entries in the horror genre, when Vincent Price exordially warns of terror the daunting images resulting in our minds are always far more chilling than what winds up on screen. Hypnotizingly ambient, "Begotten" excavates those subconscious effigies in the raw. Its hyper-contrasted black and white obscures subject, allowing the little left in our grey to extrapolate dread and find what could well be rudimentary gore effects quite hauntingly real indeed (I could swear the organs were in fact whoopee cushions and cheese danishes coated in motor oil and canned spinach but damn did they look authentic as they were crudely torn and beaten to respective pulps before being - actually refreshingly - washed away by rain). What the already clinical "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" might be if gone existential and subjected to the saturation chamber, "Begotten" is a true nightmare on celluloid. All but surmounting its images, its cynicism toward humanity is its scariest aspect even to this misanthropist.

Song of the South
Harve Foster & Wilfred Jackson, 1946
I'd seen parts of this as part of a childhood sing-a-long VHS, but never the entire feature until now. Due to its reputation, near every instant can be picked apart; its content exhaustively debated. Both sides of the is-it-racist conversation have valid points that more or less cancel one another out, but honestly I find myself concluding it is not racist, particularly considering the story's approximate time period. I could even go as far as to say the film proves racism rarely goes both ways, at least in contemporary culture, and the "jolly slave" argument holds little water. Granted "Uncle Remus" author Joel Chandler Harris was white but if legend is to be believed his portrayals of Reconstruction Era ex-slaves in the South are accurate, and legends don't even have to come into it to trace the "Remus" tales back to even before Africans were telling them. If anything, the characters Br'er Rabbit and Br'er Fox are iffy in their buffoonery (Br'er Bear I shamelessly find funny)... but they are, after all, fable, and not really any different from, say, J.J. from "Good Times". In all cases, it's about context. Yes, similar characterizations in different surroundings churn my stomach they're so insensitively abhorrent, but these don't trespass such ground. The film itself? I thoroughly enjoyed and emotionally invested in its parallels between fable and "reality", finding it a highly worthwhile experience.

Black Belt Jones
Robert Clouse, 1974
Definitively formulaic but extremely awesome with high energy, a good cast (Jim Kelly, Scatman Crothers, Gloria Hendry, Earl Brown) and laughs to equal the woop-filled, super-funky soundtrack-accompanied ninja(-ish) action. Never before have I seen that inviting a woman take so much pleasure chucking baddies into a dump truck.

Mario Camerini, 1954
Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn headlining a peplum rendition of Homer's "The Odyssey"? It just has to be great, right? Well, I'm glad I stuck it out through the shoddy opening act because yes, "Ulysses" became one of the better pepla I've seen. If the version I viewed is the best we've got, though, we could really use a restoration. Any chance the original audio track for Douglas' brash and rascally performance is laying around? Yeah, doubt it, but I'd love to see this again with remastered picture and less lame-o dubbing.

Ralph Bakshi, 1975
Quite clearly a response to (or at least a take on) "Song of the South" (and subsequently the tales of Joel Chandler Harris), this very "out there" mix of vivacious live action and unmistakable Bakshi animation twists the Disney film's "Uncle Remus" archetypes and their trials to confront its audience head-on as the rabbit, fox and bear characters are driven to extremes under post-Civil Rights Movement prejudice. As most Bakshi appears to be through the three features I've now seen from the notoriously racy filmmaker, it's rather uneven and tryingly paced, but its spirit carries with ease. As a whole it doesn't top "Fritz the Cat", but certain aspects put "Fritz" to shame. Scatman Crothers' opening song is invigorating and I love the personification of "the man" as a voluptuous, red, white, blue and star-spangled woman humorously taking every easy advantage she can to the detriment of the poverty-stricken she clutches whilst cackling to herself.

Hot Potato
Oscar Williams, 1976
Jim Kelly's Black Belt Jones trades his sideburns for some charismatic teammates (named Johnny Chicago, Rhino and... well, Pam), transitioning from blaxploitation with a side of ninjitsu to chopsocky lite with ridiculously entertaining results (a complete tone shift from Oscar Williams' prior "Five on the Black Hand Side", as well). The lethal Irene Tsu is sexy, boy! "You're invited to dinner. And breakfast. In my country, we do it my way!"

Vrooom Vroom Vrooom
Melvin Van Peebles, 1995
Lovely, lovely Melvin Van. Maybe "lovely" isn't exactly the word but, y'know... read it in a Malcolm McDowell voice. This is the best review I've ever written.

Steve Antin, 2010
The framework of a tamer "Showgirls" leaves a little to be desired (in particular I'd have liked a fleshed out pre-burlesque audition sequence) but "Burlesque", thankfully, is more than just "that movie Christina Aguilera did with Cher" or, for that matter, a mere series of music videos. At an arm's length it's a fun, timeless musical with a solid cast, sufficient tunes and sultrily inspired aesthetics. Cinematography ain't too shabby, either. "I have more to worry about than trying to keep you from pouring tequila on your Cheerios!"

Further viewings:

Cyrus - Jay & Mark Duplass, 2010
The Duplass brothers' latest (and my first from the duo) is easily accessible while remaining tongue-in-cheek throughout, its humor brought to us in authentically discomforting fashion.

My Soul to Take - Wes Craven, 2010
What the what? This amalgam of Craven's more reputed works (with a little "Mean Girls" mixed in) manages to genuinely best most of those works while somehow simultaneously - and just about indescribably - reveling in so-bad-it's-good territory. Highly enjoyable.

Skyline - Colin & Greg Strause, 2010
Leave it to me to like "Skyline", I guess. Mostly I'm impressed with what the brothers Strause managed to accomplish aesthetically on such a relatively skimpy budget, but I was also thoroughly engaged by the oft-yonic, rather "Cloverfield"-esque alien invasion affair. I definitely see where the wide naysaying stems from and - spoiler alert - the movie does lose a whole lot when it decides to make the awesome Donald Faison its first major casualty, but it's a perfectly fair dose of filmic entertainment save for a few obligatory "Nooooos" and "Let's go check it outs". And yeah, that ending? Totally, perversely nuts, and I love that with the exception of a single confirmative word it was all done non-verbally.

Dinner for Schmucks - Jay Roach, 2010
I cannot draw comparisons to the original French film, (which I am now interested in seeing), but considered here as its own piece, "Dinner for Schmucks" is harmlessly amusing Euro-influenced comedy with good performances and occasionally touching moments, even if the ending is mostly foreseeable before we really meet the characters and if it often becomes a bit too strange for its own good.

Die Höhle des gelben Hundes (The Cave of the Yellow Dog) - Davaagin Byambasüren, 2005
A more deliberate and standard narrative ultimately render this a relative disappointment after my enthusiastic reaction to Byambasüren's "The Story of the Weeping Camel", but enough of the same - culturally and cinematographically - remains considerably successful in the family yarn woven amongst the rocks, streams and endless grass of the gorgeous Mongolian steppe.

Kino-pravda 1-5, 7, 15, 17-23 - Dziga Vertov, 1922-1925
Without much frame of reference, Vertov's original "life as it is"/"life caught unawares" recordings are hardly accessible, particularly from a non-Soviet vantage. Nevertheless, Vertov's controversial approach is fascinating, dare I declare moreso here than with his subsequent "Man With the Movie Camera". Of the viewed, I find numbers 1 and 18 the most intriguing.

The King's Speech - Tom Hooper, 2010
A robust film indeed, though yet another example of handsome cinematography being over-edited. Really, it's all about Colin Firth - his performance is emotionally involving from the moment he opens his mouth and keeps us afloat while the story meanders through an obligatory midsection. He disappears into the role beautifully.

Stachka (Strike) - Sergei M. Eisenstein, 1925
Though not much against the behemoths of cinema Eisenstein would go on to create (including "Battleship Potemkin" later the same year) it easily gets by on the definitive ingenuity of the Soviet master, boldly original here with his first feature.

Doctor Zhivago - David Lean, 1965
Lean's broad, ultra-Hollywood take on the Bolshevik Revolution can be drier than the deserts of his vastly superior "Lawrence of Arabia" (compensation, perhaps, for Omar Sharif's oft-damp eyes). Regardless, Lean knew epic and shows as much here with occasionally awe-inspiring composition. This is probably the only list you'll find in which "Doctor Zhivago" is listed behind "Dinner for Schmucks" (or "My Soul to Take" or "Skyline" or "Burlesque" or...).

The Snow Creature - W. Lee Wilder, 1954
Classic creature feature fun, even if it is noticeably short on actual creature.

Die Golden Jurte (The Golden Yurt) - Rawsha Dorshpalam & Gottfried Kolditz, 1961
I could not find subtitles for this fairly dialogue-heavy German/Mongolian co-production, so I may not have followed as well as I could have but the fancifully pastoral visuals nevertheless provided blithe escape.

Tarzan the Ape Man - W.S. Van Dyke, 1932
Even after reading so much about Johnny Weissmüller and the Tarzan phenomenon (in, well, uh, "Uncle John's Bathroom Reader"), this was only my first early twentieth century Tarzan film. Though blatantly and often sloppily economized it's a good time and was surely a blast in its heyday. Actually, it's more what I expected the earliest works of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack to play like before I actually watched "The Most Dangerous Game" and "Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life" to discover otherwise (and for the better).

All the Vermeers in New York - Jon Jost, 1990
Jost picks a meager handful of striking compositions and sticks with them throughout to aesthetic success, but with the exception of just as few beautifully haunting scenes this one is ultimately a bore - sometimes annoyingly so.

Taivasta vasten (The Stars' Caravan) - Arto Halonen, 2000
Such an intriguing premise - a lone cinephile charged with bringing inspirational Soviet propaganda reels to nomads and gypsies in Kyrgyzstan but released to violent American VHS tapes after the country's independence from the crumbled USSR - is unfortunately executed with little passion... or at least little that actually comes across. With glimmers of buoyant cinematography and vague cultural comparabilities I can see why this was suggested based on my recent fascination with Davaa Byambasüren (it's no surprise Peter Brosens produced), but with few intriguing sequences it lacks much of Byambasüren's alluringly immersive spirit.

Essential Killing - Jerzy Skolimowski, 2010
As though trying to convince that (relative) minimalism and thrillers shouldn't mix, the shallow "Essential Killing" is nakedly contrived; often self-defeating in its lame conventions. Well, alright, the final act ranges from good to great but does it redeem the preceding two? Enough to put it ahead of the rest of this list, anyway.

Arthur - Jason Winer, 2011
How does one transport Dudley Moore's hilariously offensive and financially irresponsible man-boy to these more politically correct and economically conservative times? By watering down his vodka, it would seem. The cultural shift from 1981 to 2011 is palpable from scene one, in which our new Arthur already appears to have a set, almost altruistic moral code contrary to that of the Arthur we were introduced to as he picked up prostitutes. Would it be so difficult to like this character today were he less, well, ostensibly likable? Do we really need to send him to Alcoholics Anonymous (literally)? Read the full review.

Cleopatra Jones - Jack Starrett, 1973
In this frail picture, Bernie Casey eclipses Tamara Dobson as the anchor of badassery. Wonder if I might have liked it better had Pam Grier never existed? Ouch, perish that thought. Invalid anyway, as "Sugar Hill" was just fine behind still another icon of fine blaxploitation sass, Marki Bey.

127 Hours - Danny Boyle, 2010
Well, it made me want a glass of water (if a bit underhandedly). As is the widely cried complaint, the surreal-ish vision stuff doesn't work at all and some of the over-stylization is useless. A Timothy Treadwell-esque aspect is evidenced in the frequent self-filming Aron Ralston is shown to do. Ralston is his own hero and through his recordings seems to desire the same sentiment from his peers. Does this mean the celebrity he earned through his will to survive - in spite of stubborn self-alienation - was what he wanted all along? Probably the second best of the five I've seen from Boyle, who can always be counted on for something completely different whether for better (seldom) or for worse (often). For the record, the best for me would be "The Beach", though it took me a while to come around on the definitively Alex Garland ending.

Love & Other Drugs - Edward Zwick, 2010
The obvious (and very, very good) reasons to watch this movie: Anne Hathaway's "T" and Anne Hathaway's "A". Oh, Hathaway herself is good as usual, though her occasional battles with forced scripting are somewhat more apparent. I actually got a Penelope-Cruz-in-"Abre los ojos" (and/or "Vanilla Sky") vibe from her, which appears of little coincidence upon learning she cites Cruz - the "Abre los ojos" performance in particular - as a source of reassurance regarding the copious nudity. Apart from the Hathaway factor, this is basically a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy with better production values and your traditional Ed Zwick protagonist (a charismatically defiant male initially rewarded yet eventually tortured for his manner) but unfortunately devoid of the director's trademark landscapes. In many ways it's a watered-down medley of Cameron Crowe pictures. While the "Other Drugs" skew the focus, this one is at its best when the "Love" is clamoring through the glimmer of the 1990s (the cultural accuracy of which I'm not so sure of... I mean, among many other things, did people really say "bi-curious" in 1996?). Oh, and by "Love" I mean Jake Gyllenhaal giving ill-timed bedroom eyes amidst an extended Tom Cruise impression.

Hot Tub Time Machine - Steve Pink, 2010
Time travel and/or nostalgia movies are becoming - in another way than by definition - very "been there, done that" affairs. Little about "Hot Tub Time Machine" is surprising, or competent in general, for that matter. It's tough to go wrong with latter twentieth century pop culture throwbacks or ideas of reliving and rectifying past traumas (I.E. helpless beatings, break-ups) and "Hot Tub" doesn't go entirely wrong thanks to apt costuming and a few supporting actors who seriously nail '80s movie emulation (including the original George McFly, Crispin Glover), but really, with the minor exception of Rob Corddry (whom I honestly don't typically care for but does a good job here with the film's only worthwhile character), it's just a time waster.

Emmanuelle - Just Jaeckin, 1974
For rather different reasons, I used to watch the many "Emmanuelle" sequels on Cinemax when I was a tween. I always found them boring and certainly did not find them stimulating, particularly when compared to Cinemax' other late-night programming. So this original entry, viewed with a mindset at least somewhat more complex than "ooh, nudity and sex"? Yeah, still boring. Not exactly stimulating either (about on par with Anne Rice's "The Sleeping Beauty Trilogy", so yeah), but I suppose I can appreciate that the erotica is left to take place mostly in our minds moreso than with standard softcore fare. As Emmanuelle explores new levels of her sexuality, the scenes of actual sex are brief and few but the fact she has newly experienced them - sometimes violative, always exciting - is progressively seen in her presence. The mind is the most sensitive erogenous zone, after all.

Bamboo Gods & Iron Men - Cesar Gallardo, 1974
Uh... no? With occasional glimpses of badass and/or irreverent yes? But yeah, mostly no.

Krull - Peter Yates, 1983
The term "Star Wars rip-off" gets frequently tossed around amongst late '70s, early '80s sci-fi fare. Much of the time, as was the case last month with my "Message from Space" viewing, I find the alleged culprits less "rip-offs" and more just pieces capitalizing on a craze. "Krull", on the other hand, while not being the most overt perpetrator as it takes a somewhat unique medieval approach, steals tricks straight out of the "Star Wars" book in about every other scene. Compared to similar films of its decade, its production values are fair and on occasion it does ride on the allure of fantastical questing, but that's about all I can offer by way of compliment.

Kinta - C.L. Hor, 2008
AKA "Four Dragons". All but an absolute mess. Imposed by Andrew Ryan as part of "Korrierinorgy Kombat: Tournament Edition", Round Three. View my video reaction in the style of a horse race announcer, a made-up language and George VI as portrayed by Colin Firth in "The King's Speech" (an impression which, now that I've seen "The King's Speech", I realize I more or less butchered). Actually, you know what? I'll just embed it below. Why not, right? En...joy?

Life As We Know It - Greg Berlanti, 2010
Through atrocious writing and Katherine Heigl demonstrating to the fullest why I and so many others can rarely stand her, "Life As We Know It" is worse than "The Ugly Truth". Take that as you will, as miraculously I didn't think "The Ugly Truth" was the worst thing in the world. But seriously, I feel I should earn some kind of trophy for making it through an hour and forty-nine minutes of "Life As We Know It". Granted I did approach the endeavor with a handicap of... uh... I dunno, what's a golfing euphemism for tequila?

Total first-time viewings: 36

Rewatches (11 total): Alexander (Stone, 2004), Monty Python's The Meaning of Life (T. Jones, 1983), Forward March, Time! (Tarasov, 1977), Burn After Reading (Coen, 2008), Cigarettes & Coffee (P.T. Anderson, 1993), Primal Fear (Hoblit, 1996), Arthur (Gordon, 1981), Deliverance (Boorman, 1972), The Fly (Cronenberg, 1986), The School of Rock (Linklater, 2003), Waterworld (Reynolds/Costner, 1995)

- Concise words can hardly sum up my adoration for Oliver Stone's director's cut of "Alexander". This viewing saw me misty-eyed for the duration - easily 160 of the quickest minutes I've experienced. Sheer perfection? Nay; after so many viewings I've picked up a number of nit-picks, but what could be considered shortcomings are so inconsequentially minor they don't begin to damper the proceedings. After what is probably the longest period I've gone without watching the film since I first saw it, it feels great to be reminded why I fell in love in the first place.
- For the record's record, "The Meaning of Life" is easily my favorite pure comedy. I've seen it countless times and I still laugh out loud the whole way through, often more and more with each go. If there's a more quotable movie whose quotes hardly if ever apply to actual conversation, I am unaware of it. "What was that about hats again?"
- With each viewing "Burn After Reading" becomes funnier and funnier to the point that it's now a consistent riot with near every line eliciting belly laughter. It also distinguishes itself more and more in my mind from being essentially a Coen brothers "best of" (though strong similarities to the prior works - "Fargo", "The Big Lebowski" and "No Country for Old Men" in particular - are very noticeable). Editing and score top it off by making the uproariously overblown nothing of a situation feel like a hard political thriller. Brilliantly snappy stuff!
- A more digested, relatively more informed look in to Vladimir Tarasov's "Forward March, Time!" proved even more groovy, fascinating and disquieting than the first just a couple weeks prior. What a film!
- It having been a while since I had taken in a Richard Gere movie, I was overdue. "Primal Fear" doesn't hold up immaculately to multiple rewatches, but I still find it an excellent example of American '90s dramatic entertainment with an exhilarating twist and excellent performances from Edward Norton's debut to the firecracker of a showing from Laura Linney.
- "Deliverance" is intense. Though sexual subtext is skated over, it's a superb page-to-screen adaptation, as well. Incidentally, I never before noticed how strikingly similar the younger, mustached version of my father looks to the younger, mustached version of Jon Voight.
- I'm not sure I recognized this distinctly the first time, but "The Fly" is very much a "Frankenstein" story at its core. As with Mary Shelley's masterpiece I cannot help but wonder what might have happened had things just gone smoothly! Of course wondering is probably part of the point.

1 comment:

  1. Went up a touch early this month due to an anticipated internet/movie deprivation over April's final two days. Have a good end of the month :)


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