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Jawbreaker (1999)
My guilty pleasure, 28 August 2012

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 (1999)
28 out of 52 people found the following review useful:
To borrow from the film itself: "A raving morass that reeks of plagiarism.", 9 February 2006

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.

7 out of 13 people found the following review useful:
Good direction ill-served by poor acting and terrible script, 22 August 2005

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.

3 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Uneven but good, 24 February 2005

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

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.

Crazy Lips (2000)
4 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Not your average horror/comedy/soft-porn/kungfu/musical/mystery/action/thriller, 11 February 2005

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 (2003)
4 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Absolutely hilarious., 30 December 2004

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.

3 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Existentialism 101, or "Woe Man on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown", 3 December 2004

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.

4 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Years ahead of its time, perhaps?, 18 November 2004

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).

50 out of 62 people found the following review useful:
Two thirds of a great film., 9 November 2004

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.

4 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
Asinine tango, more like it., 14 September 2004

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

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.

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