Ganja & Hess (U.S., 1973) * *
D: Bill Gunn
I made the happy mistake of getting a subscription to Video Watchdog, one of the best magazines I've ever enjoyed, and now my Netflix queue is filling up with movies that the writers at VW are convincing me I must see. One of those--though I had to hunt it down at local video store Four Star Video heaven--is this obscure horror film, recently restored to a "director's cut" (though that term is problematic, as the VW article described) and released on DVD. Director Gunn was hired to make a black vampire film on the heels of Blacula, but he wasn't an exploitation director and had no interest in horror--though he did cast Duane Jones, from Night of the Living Dead. Instead he made an art film, essentially, about addiction, decades before Abel Ferrara's The Addiction, which took a similar riff on the vampirism theme. Jones plays a scholar who becomes addicted to blood, and when he gets married, he slowly initiates his wife into his world. It's told very abstractly, with minimal expository dialogue and a lots of arty editing (the editor was a director of experimental films who did not look at the script, and pieced together the narrative on his own). The feel is like Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, but lent a disturbing undertone with its jarring use of mismatched chronology, creepy African music, and unexplained digressions. It's more of a mood piece than a film, and amateurish in many parts (some of the dialogue is difficult to hear, and many scenes drag on too long), but certainly, if you stay awake through its languid pace, it leaves its mark on your psyche, which counts for something.
Hot Fuzz (U.K., 2007) * * * 1/2
D: Edgar Wright
One of the funniest movies I've seen in ages. Director Wright is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors: I'm just catching up with his 1999 U.K. series Spaced right now, and loved his previous feature, Shaun of the Dead, along with his fake movie trailer, "Don't," which played in Grindhouse. Both this and Shaun starred his Spaced regulars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, and together all three seem to be the true heirs to Monty Python in the comedy troupe movement--forget the disappointing Broken Lizard. Pegg plays a perfectionist London cop who is transferred to the small town of Sandford simply because he's making all the other cops look bad. It seems like a quiet farmer's village, but soon he's following a trail of mysterious and grisly murders, insisting--to an incredulous police force--that they're connected. Frost plays his partner, who's obsessed with American cop movies, and director Wright and co-writer Pegg quickly send up every American cop movie cliche imaginable, leading to an hilarious finale. Exquisitely executed, but packed with so many gags that you're almost afraid to laugh, lest you miss another one.
Marie Antoinette (U.S., 2006) * * 1/2
D: Sofia Coppola
Sofia Coppola's follow-up to Lost in Translation casts Kristin Dunst as Ms. "Let Them Eat Cake," following her rise from pampered teenager to even-more-pampered royalty living in Versailles and married to a sexually disinterested Louis XVI (Jason Schwartzman). I was prepared for Coppola's anachronistic take on French royalty--80's New Wave hits and all--but I was still left wondering why she was so disinterested in anything but the accoutrements. There's a lovely montage set to "I Want Candy"--a song I usually detest--that consists of some of her finest filmmaking yet, as she fetishistically frames the various ornaments, baubles, desserts, silks, and lace that have become the treasures of Marie's new life. But that's all there is to the film: the final shot sees the Queen departing, looking sadly at Versailles fading behind her coach, as though she doesn't even know why she's being forced to leave. Watching this film, you wouldn't know either.
Spider-Man 3 (U.S., 2007) * * 1/2
D: Sam Raimi
The third in the Spider-Man trilogy is overstuffed, most obviously, with three villains (The New Goblin, Sandman, and Venom) and way too many subplots and supporting characters. It seems that director Raimi had at least one of those subplots--Venom--forced upon him by one of his producers. Such is Hollywood filmmaking. As a result, it's a flawed finale to the saga, offering plenty of moments of whiplash as Raimi dashes from one plotline to another; Topher Grace has a nice role to play as Eddie Brock, somewhat cast against type, but Raimi barely has room or time for him. There are too many coincidences pushing events forward--a meteor falling from the sky is fine in this comic book universe, but the same universe can't sustain Brock just happening to be standing in the church where Spider-Man is pulling off his evil symbiote suit: credulity is strained to the breaking point. But there's a lot to recommend this film too, with plenty of goofy Raimi comedy and even a musical number, and a Stayin' Alive-style street-strutting scene with the deliberately dorky Tobey Maguire. Undoubtedly it's time for Raimi to pull away from the Spider-Man franchise, and doubtless he will, but for a little while it was a match made in heaven.