Movie Journal – 5/27/2012

Well, it’s Memorial Day weekend, and I’ve been home from school for approximately two and a half weeks. Having actual time has permitted me to watch plenty of films, so naturally, I have failed to keep up with the Movie Journal component of this blog. Consider this my recap. There are quite a few movies here, so I decided to tackle this thing with capsule reviews, Leonard Maltin style. With the good number of films I will have access to this summer, don’t be surprised if I utilize this format more often. As for this entry, Mulholland Drive takes the cake. Enjoy!

 

The French Connection (1971)     5/5

Directed by William Friedkin (20th Century Fox)

Simply one of the greatest crime films ever made, examining the smuggling of drugs from France to the U.S., and proving that some stories can only be told through guerilla filmmaking. Before going on to make The Exorcist, director William Friedkin marched into New York City and crafted this thrilling tale of corruption, so authentic it almost resembles docudrama. Gene Hackman gives an Oscar-winning performance as “Popeye” Doyle, the cop who will stop at nothing to catch the bad guys, even if it means putting himself or others at risk. And who could forget that car chase? The concluding sequence will haunt you as much as the prior left you breathless with excitement.

 

 

Kill Bill, Volume 1 (2003)     4/5

Written & Directed by Quentin Tarantino (Miramax Films)

It may fail to rank with Tarantino’s best work, but the movie loving auteur’s first segment of his two-part, revenge epic is still an extraordinary exercise in style, although the filmmaker’s revery in excess may come across silly at times. Kill Bill, Volume 1 pays homage to Asian/kung-fu cinema, blaxpoitation films, spaghetti westerns, and everything in between, all while telling a conventional story in one of his signature, non-linear narratives (and even interluding with a superb, anime sequence).

Just when you feel overwhelmed by pop culture and cinephilia, you realize just how interesting and fun Tarantino’s characters actually are, Uma Thurman playing “The Bride” with both ferocityand inner-sadness. And boy, does she kick ass; just take the film’s climactic action sequence, as The Bride takes on countless minions, slices their bodies to pieces, and spills more blood than you could possibly imagine. Plus, it tells us something about Tarantino that we had not previously known. He can frame action sequences better than most “action” directors.

 

 

Kill Bill, Volume 2 (2004)     4.5/5

Written & Directed by Quentin Tarantino (Miramax Films)

However, it is Volume 2 that fully realizes Tarantino’s aspirations for what Kill Bill could be. In this dialogue-heavy conclusion, Tarantino proves he is telling a quite compelling character story, rather than a simple tale of violent revenge. What really takes precedent here is the relationship between The Bride and Bill, the final, and most prominent, member of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, and the one Uma’s character must kill to fully exert her revenge.

But Bill (played by David Carradine in a spectacular performance) has history with The Bride that has been gradually developed throughout Tarantino’s two parts, and what this forces the audience to examine – love, purpose, anger, regret, and of course, the nature of revenge, is likely more profound than anything Tarantino has dealt with before. In fact, this conclusion goes so far as to even touch us. The Kill Bill films slightly fall below the bloody excellence of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Inglourious Basterds, but they do show the former video-store employee in a quite different light. He shows us what he loves, and invites us to take part in how it makes him feel.

 

 

Lifeforce (1985)     2.5/5

Directed by Tobe Hooper (Tri-Star Pictures)

Coming off The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Salem’s Lot, and Poltergeist, Tobe Hooper thought it would be a great idea to adapt Colin Wilson’s 1976 novel, The Space Vampires. The intent was to pay homage to British science-fiction, the result – a seemingly half-hearted attempt to make several different types of sci-fi/horror films. We have elements of Alien, Romero’s Dead series, and several others, with little narrative ingenuity to tie such strange story elements together. If it’s any consolation, it seems as though the kinky, romantic elements of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (directed by Francis Ford Coppola) could’ve been inspired by Hooper’s film, although Coppola’s gothic epic is far different, indeed.

Segments of Lifeforce are surely entertaining, but it is hard to determine what is more frustrating; the film’s incessant drive to shift from alien, to vampire, to zombie story, or the fact that the movie simply doesn’t play by its own rules. In the end, it makes very little sense. Maybe had more of Hooper’s space prologue remained intact (much of it was cut through studio intervention), Lifeforce may have received the benefit of a bit more consistency. As it stands now, the film is a campy mess.

 

 

Mulholland Drive (2001)     5/5

Written & Directed by David Lynch (Universal Pictures)

Experiences like Mulholland Drive are the reason we go to the movies. It grabs you and doesn’t let go, mainly because you don’t have a choice. Every step of the way, David Lynch is one step ahead of you. He simply anticipates every reaction, and draws you into something you can’t escape. And what a wonderful trip it is. Lynch, who has made such dark classics as Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, and Blue Velvet, starts things out with a surprisingly straight face. Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) comes to Hollywood with dreams of becoming an actress, yet stumbles upon Rita (Laura Elena Harring), a survivor of a car accident on Mulholland Drive, leaving her with no memory.

As we come to discover a colorful cast of bizarre characters and vignettes, we soon realize all will descend into madness. Originally conceived as a television series, it is a blessing that the pilot was rejected, considering cinema is no doubt Mulholland Drive‘s proper medium. Characters soon switch roles, events may or may not have happened, and we come to wonder what has been idealized, who has been fantasizing about what/who, and what, if anything, is occurring before our eyes.

The last half hour of the film operates by pure dream logic, and while the film overall is capable of telling a conceivable story, multiple viewing are surely required, and deserved. It is incredible how Lynch ties in elements to create a satisfying film, penetrating our thoughts and emotions in such a way that we feel intricately involved, even if we may not know what is going on. Buried beneath it all, however, is a love story so tragic and dark, erotic and bizarre. We may not fully understand it, but it makes us feel something, and Lynch knows that.

You can consider Mulholland Drive as noir if you wish, but Lynch’s psychological style and dynamic cinematography surely contribute to a genre he helped create – American Surrealism. Like Sunset Boulevard before it, Lynch’s film is, in more ways than one, a “f**k you” to Hollywood. It represents the City of Angels not as a place where one discovers dreams, but in their pursuit, a descent into one’s own nightmares. Through Mulholland Drive, we are shown that few know our deepest fears and desires like David Lynch.

 

 

The Others (2001)     3.5/5

Written & Directed by Alejandro Amenabar (Dimension Films)

Although it hinges on a twist that just barely lingers above obvious, Alejandro Amenabar’s The Others is a genuinely spooky, haunted house story, the writer-director achieving quite effective terror from his audience, through music (composed by Amenabar himself), sound, and reaction shots to who knows what. The plot elements are fairly exaggerated, and if The Others had been a bit more subtle about where it was going, it only would have been scarier. However, Amenabar does a terrific job with atmosphere, filling a desolate house with emotion and fear of the unknown. Nicole Kidman, who gives a captivating performance as a woman trying not to go insane, was nominated for a Golden Globe.

The child actors who play her offspring (and who, we are told, have a condition that prevents them from being exposed to direct light) are also fantastic. At the heart of the film is a rather sad story of a woman desperately awaiting her husband’s return from war. What muddles it are some inconsistencies that will be dismissed by many as unimportant. Yet this all culminates in an ending that succeeds in wanting to make you see the film again. I don’t think I will, however, holding onto the fear that the plot will unravel before my eyes. I will instead savor the fear I felt throughout many scenes, and the skill with which Amenabar drew out my own anxieties.

 

 

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)     4/5

Directed by Edgar Wright (Universal Pictures)

As Scott Pilgrim began, I felt overwhelmed by hipness, a near-insane mash-up of retro gaming and indie music culture, that which at first was hard to take, but soon drew me in with its utter inventiveness. Michael Cera gives a hilarious performance as Michael Cera (a.k.a. Scott Pilgrim) who must defeat the “seven evil exes” of Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), in order to properly date her. It may seem difficult to conceptualize that premise, especially when the film jumps right into the visual exuberance of Edgar Wright (who directed Simon Pegg and Nick Frost in both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz). From there, it is hard to catch your breath.

But who better to direct this indescribably fun graphic novel adaptation? The visuals are eye-popping to say the least, and are likely to be nothing like you have ever seen before; if you play a lot of video games (or are in a local band with a ridiculous name) you will likely be in heaven. But even if you aren’t young or hip, the script (co-written by Wright), full of wit, clever dialogue, and purposefully bad puns, is hard to resist. Scott Pilgrim isn’t too concerned with logic, but you are unlikely to find many modern films this visually involving, and for the most part, one so joyously in love with itself. There’s also a bittersweet love triangle, to boot. Cult film in the making.

 

 

Shaft (1971)     4/5

Directed by Gordon Parks (MGM)

One of cinema’s most memorable characters, John Shaft (played by Richard Roundtree), wasn’t one to screw around. If you pissed him off, he would be the first to let you know. If you tried to take a smack at him, he would bash a bottle over your head. In 1971, the world was ready for Shaft, and as a result, it inspired a continuous strand of blaxpoitation pictures. While Gordon Parks’ film never quite tells a unique crime story, the African-American detective it places in front of an audience is a character for the ages, established by Isaac Hayes’ Oscar-winning theme.

Apart from its historical significance, Shaft is pretty much as you would expect, demonstrating characteristic fetishes of the blaxpoitation period (ex. hesitant zooms, groovy sex scenes). However, there are some superbly edited action scenes in Shaft, and although this world may seem a little more artificial than say … The French Connection, all of these components blend to produce a film of a quite pleasurable sensibility, and despite not being all that profound, one that we can easily sense as important. Black or white, you’ll be hard-pressed not to cheer for John Shaft.

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