Sunday, December 28, 2008

2008 part 4...

And the hits just keep coming...

1. An American Carol- Initially, I wrote an outraged diatribe on this right-wing slapstick comedy from the direct of "Airplane!" but in truth this film barely warrants mention. Not enough people saw in onscreen to make any kind of significant social impact, and it seems unlikely to gain much further notice on DVD. You know why conservatives don't do humor? They're not funny. Republican humor is Anne Coutler calling John Edwards a "faggot," or, y'know, shooting an abortion doctor in the back. The height of hilarity in this film is pointing out that Michael Moore is fat. Maybe in a decade or two historians can look back at this film as the kind of hateful, willfully ignorant rhetoric that fueled the Bush era. In the meantime, it's best left ignored.

2. Beverly Hills Chihuahaha- You know what the world needs? A remake of "Born in East L.A." (with a little bit of "Maid to Order" thrown in), only with dogs. The presence of Cheech Marin (as a rat who, in one scene, offers his services as a dog pimp) only brings to mind how much better a film "Born in East L.A." is than this. A dog says,"Talk to the paw" and "Aye, Papi!" Buster Poindexter's "Hot Hot Hot" is heard on the soundtrack. For no apparent reason, the two main human leads wackily wash a tubful of stray dogs (warning- washing dogs with a member of the opposite sex will automatically make you fall in love with them, apparently). A gay pug dog says,"Oh no she di'int!" You get the point. Still funnier than "An American Carol."

3. Religulous- Another of my favorite films of the year, Bill Maher and Larry Charles' documentary on religion really gets it right. Maher, whose election commentary on "Real Time" was particularly strong this year, states up front that he doesn't profess to know any of the answers of the universe, and that's the point. His objection isn't to belief, per se, but violent and aggressive action in the name of blind faith, and as such interrogates Catholocism, Evangelicals, Mormonism, Scientology, some aspects of Judiaism and radical Islam. As an interviewer, Maher is direct and fair, he treats his subjects, even those his disagrees with, with respect by honestly giving his opinion and pulling no punches. When he tells a joke at someone's belief system's expense, he pauses to give them a chance to laugh or respond, sometimes provding moments of rather wonderful discomfort. It's in sharp contrast to Charles' previous film, "Borat," which I absolutely hated, Maher isn't trying to put one over on anyone, or trick them into saying something they might otherwise say, he hides behind nothing and makes no apologies for his tactics or beliefs. Really, an important film in this era of extremism.

4. Stuck- And another of my favorites of the year, Stuart Gordon returns to the brutal terrority of his "King of the Ants" (and, to a lesser extent, his David Mamet collaboration "Edmond") with this stark, often grimly hilarious about a self-involved nurse (Mena Suvari, in corn roes) who hits a homeless man (the great Stephen Rae) with her car and then leaves him in her garage, sticking out of her windshield as he bleeds to death. Rae pleads and pleads with Suvari to call for help as she tries to figure out how to deal with the situation without getting in any trouble. Why would anyone do such a thing? Because the world is a horrible place, the thesis of this film and other Gordon projects. Really, for a director who is best known for his fantasy horror films ("Re-Animator" and "From Beyond"), Gordon really excells at this kind of grimy, realistic brutality cinema. "Stuck" is full of cringe-inducing moments, such as when a dog sneaks into the garage and begins to feed on Rae's wounds, or when Rae, in an escape attempt, stabs Suvari's boyfriend in the eye with a pen- deep. But this isn't just a gore film, it's about responsiblity and morality and it's smart as it is unnerving (perhaps it's so unnerving because it is so smart). Smart and brutal. And it's based on a true story, for extra "this is so fucked up" points. The supporting cast is great too, including the great, late Lionel Mark Smith (a Mamet regular) in one of his final roles as a homeless man, and Russell Hornsby as Suvari's boyfriend.

5. Death Race- There's no reason why anyone should remake Paul Bartel's "Death Race 2000," it's a near-perfect film, blending action and science-fiction elements with outrageous humor and social satire. And if anyone did remake it, it certainly shouldn't have been Paul WS Anderson, director of video game movies like "Mortal Kombat" and "Resident Evil." And certainly there's no sense in remaking this without the satirical elements, especially in today's political climate. And yet we have "Death Race." And yet, it's not terrible, in large part because it's really more of a remake of "The Running Man" with cars and character names from Bartel's film than it actually is a remake of "Death Race 2000." This is serviceable if unremarkable action picture that runs a little too long to remain consistently interesting but certainly isn't as a fucking travesty as it could have been. Oddly, Anderson seems somewhat obsessed with grafting homoerotic undertones (and in some cases, overtones) on the material, something not present in the original film as directed by the openly gay Bartel. If it were me making this, I'd have stilled called it "Death Race 2000" and had it taken place eight years in the past, but I'm awesome and Paul WS Anderson isn't.

6. Dreams with Sharp Teeth- Technically, I saw this in 2007, but it played theatrically this year, so it makes the list. Egotistical, outspoken science-fiction author, TV writer and general impresario Harlan Ellion is an annoying loudmouth (pehraps even moreso than chattering idiot Robin Williams or pretentious fop Neil Gaiman, also interviewed here), but there's no denying that he's a significant figure in genre literature and popular culture, and this documentary, by Erik Nelson, does an excellent job of profiling him. Though comprised almost entirely of interviews with Ellison (and some archival footage), who seems like someone who would be almost unbearable to spend any ammount of time talking to, "Dreams With Sharp Teeth" is pretty compelling viewing, and worth a look. I actually lobied for the film distro company I used to enter for to take this one on. They didn't. Their loss.

7. Gran Torino- Growling, spitting Clint Eastwood veers towards self-parody as an angry, racist Korean war vet who, having long since alienated his own family, forms an odd, tenuous relationship with a family of Vietnamese immigrants living next door to him. Well, he'd be veering towards self-parody if he had any kind of self-awareness, but this flick isn't that smart, nor is it especially realistic. All the characters seem to express themselves by saying exactly what's on their minds all the time, y'know, just like real people. It's the kind of faux-realism that doesn't particularly lend itself to movies about subjects as serious as racism. But fuck it, this is white Hollywood, so I can suppose we can at least be thankful that this doesn't go too far into the "poor white man who has to put up with all these horrible, ignorant colored people" terrority ala Joel Shumacher's "Falling Down," though it comes awfully close. And if Eastwood weren't such a creepy, right wing libertarian fuck he might have a little bit more license to play a character like this, or direct a film like this. As such, one gets a sense of just how out-of-touch the actor-filmmaker is with contemporary urban living and racial politics. Ahney Her, as the Hmong neighbor who attempts to befriend Eastwood's character, is quite good, even if most of her role is to basically blandly explain the basics of Hmong culture to Eastwood (an the audience), a walking, talking tourguide/wikipedia entry, not a good character (one suspects such a spirited Vietnamese-American would tolerate spending any time with crusty old Eastwood, let alone fail to make comment at his references to "gooks"), but a decent actress. But, really, are we really to believe that a lifelong racist like Eastwood (well, his character) would have his heart softened, in his old age, because some immigant neighbors are...nice to him? Or that the Hmong family would even be so nice to someone so aggressively bigoted? Or that these characters need some old white guy to help them in the first place? I mean, there's something in there, the idea that if we all spent some time together, we'd probably get along better, so that's, I dunno, it doesn't really work here. And it still kind of amazes me how critics will bend over backwards to heap praise upon Eastwood, as though he were some kind of national treasure (this is the guy who made "City Heat" with Burt Reynolds, "The Rookie" with Charlie Sheen and "Every Which Way But Loose" with a monkey who's a better actor than either Reynolds or Sheen), even his most minor efforts, the praise I read for this film represent some kind of triumph of film history over film criticism.

8. The Incredible Hulk- How exactly this is supposed to be better than the Ang Lee/James Schamus "Hulk" from a few years back, I'm not really sure, but then again I'm in the relative minority who liked that version. Yes, it was flawed, as are most movies in some way or another, most things in life in general (which in a way was part of the point of Lee's film, I think), but it was thoughtful, ponderous and intelligent in a way that comic book inspired films certainly are. This new version, directed by Louis Leterrier from a script by Werner Herzog cohort Zak Penn (check out "Incident at Loch Ness"), manages to be at once both more exciting and blander. More exciting because it focuses more on action, adds a credible villain, the Abomination (something the first film admittedly lacked), and better special effects. Blander because it's bleached of the things that made Lee's film unique. Gone are the beautiful vistas of the Hulk leaping across the desert, gone are the psychedelic diversions into the bacterial world. Somehow, if they could have balanced the strangeness and smartness of the first film with the fun and action of this film, they could have come up with something kind of incredible. But they didn't. Also, cinematically speaking, I think it's time to stop focusing on the struggle between Bruce Banner and the Hulk and just focus on the monster, or at least establish some kind of equilibrium between intelligent human and grunting Hulk so we can spend some onscreen time with the creature doing something more than just fighting. All said, this is a wholeheartedly acceptable superhero film, nothing particularly unique about it, but nothing especially wrong with it either. And even though I didn't like "Iron Man," the cameo by Robert Downey Jr. was pretty cute, as was the implication that the Tim Blake Nelson character, Samuel Sterns, will become his comics counterpart, the big-headed Leader, and that Betty Ross' boyfriend at the beginning of the film is Leonard "Doc" Sampson, and although the obligatory Stan Lee cameo is getting pretty old at this point, I enjoyed the brief bit of Lou Ferrigno, as well as the short glimpse of the late Bill Bixby on a TV screen, AND a little bit of the theme from the "Incredible Hulk" TV series- which sounds an awful lot like "Super Heroes" from the "Rocky Horror Picture Show"- on the soundtrack (yeah, there's plenty of meat in this one for us comic book nerds). It's less pretentious than the "X-Men" or "Batman" films, gutsier than "Spider-Man" and nowhere near as stupid as "Fantastic Four" or "X-Men 3." Keep up the "it could be worse" work, Marvel Films (maybe some of the will trickle down to Marvel Comics, which couldn't possibly be any worse).

9. Choke- In retrospect, I'm ebarrassed about how much I liked "Fight Club" when I first saw it, nearly a decade ago, although to be fair my interest in that film quickly faded, as did my interest in author Chuck Palahniuk. "Fight Club" and "Survivor" were pretty great books, but after that he proved to be kind of a one trick pony. I lost interest after the novel "Choke," so I wasn't particularaly enthusiastic about this film version by writer-director-actor Clark Gregg. And yeah, "Choke" plays a little bit like "Fight Club Lite," lacking the flashy visuals and the broader implications of the storyline while keeping some of the same wry, postmodern humor, disjointed editing, droll voiceover and obsession with 12-step programs. It's pretty clunky and uneven, shifting between standard narrative and the whole, kind of tired flashback-forward-freezeframe kind of pseudo-Godardian stuff. And it's kind of too bad, since Gregg is a good director of actors, and he has some very good actors to work with, although Sam Rockwell may actually be a bit too likeable for the lead character, who's supposed to be kind of a scumbag (who find redemption of course. Well, kind of, but enough to wrap things up unecessarly tidily). The supporting performers, all well cast, include Angelica Huston, Kelly McDonald, Bijou Phillips, Brad William Henke, Gregg himself and, in smaller roles, Joel Gray and Matt Molloy. Had things been tightened up a bit, some of the cleverness and cutsiness cast aside, some of the sentiment restrained, this would have been a pretty good, low-key, dialogue driven film. As it stands, it's just pretty average, kind of a slightly longer, slightly less noxious episode of "Six Feet Under" or some equally unpleasant R-rated cable fare.

10. Eden Lake- Written and directed by James Watkins, "Eden Lake" is a brutally effective British horror movie, taking a somewhat familiar scenario (young couple on vacation in the country, menaced by, y'know, bad pople) and gives it a sense of freshness through that all so rare of commodities- good filmmaking. Unlike its' countrymate, "Donkey Punch," this one actually has interesting, sympathetic main characters, so you actually kind of care what happens to them once the gory stuff starts. Watkins builds the tension slowly, even without much story to get in the way of the action, he spends some time not only establishing his main protagonists, but in creating a sense of menace and dread. The horror doesn't really start until about a half hour in, and even then it's not exactly relentless. Whereas much horror of the day revels in the excess of gaudy camerawork and too-fast MTV-style editing (I suppose these days, we just call it editing), "Eden Lake" has a more natural feel, shot predominantly with unobtrusive hand held camera. The film is in some ways so deceptively simple, you almost wonder how Watkins is going to fill 90 minutes and still maintain interest, without just having people running around chasing one another the whole time, but does, uncomfortably so (in a good horror movie way). For sure one of '08's better fright flicks, and that ending is pretty devastating...

More to come...


A friend of mine was interviewed on a Turkish film site was kind enough to give me a mention. It's in Turkish, but check it out here anyway.
Check out Jesse Richards' blog here.

Friday, December 26, 2008

2008 part 3...

More films from 2008, good, bad or indifferent...

1. Tokyo Gore Police- The highlight of this year's New York Asian Film Festival was this fabulously over-the-top Japanese splatter epic. I reviewed it here.

2. Chanbara Beauty- Far less interesting than "Tokyo Gore Police" at the New York Asian Film Fest was this Japanese video game adaptation. It's about women in bikinis who fight zombies, and that's all you really need to know about it, really that's all there is to it. Dumb and flawed but kind of fun. Kind of.

3. Pressure Cooker- The films I write about on Negative Pleasure are generally neither wonderful nor heartwarming. This documentary, which I caught at the CMJ Festival this year, is both. It's about a cooking class at an inner city Philadelphia high school, focusing on the teacher (an outspoken 40 year yet of the Philly public school system), and three of the students vying for ultracompetitive culinary arts scholarships. Films like this tend to be condescending and overly sentimental, and there is admittedly a slight excess of sentiment on display here towards the end, but for the most part the filmmakers stay out of the way of their subjects, letting the kids, who are all pretty awesome, speak for themselves. As cliche as it sounds (and fortunately, this is mostly a pretty uncliched film), there really wasn't a dry eye in the house by the end of this one. I don't know when it comes out, but I suspect you'll hear about it when it does.

4. American Swing- Also seen at CMJ, this doc is more or less the symmetrical opposite of "Pressure Cooker." While that film dealt with a vital topic (urban poverty, more or less) in a vital, uncliched, unironic way, this is a film that deals with excess (Plato's Retreat, the famous New York sex club of the 1970s and 1980s) in a smug, smarmy way. It manages to mostly ignore the negative aspects of its' topic (AIDS, drug abuse, the emptiness of this kind of casual sex) while still wringing "hey, look it how stupid these hicks are" from many of its' interview subjects. Some funny anecdots from Buck Henry and a surprise appearance by Professor Irwin Corey (who knew he was even still alive?) aside, this is a misguided attempt at celebrating something that I suspect even many of its' participants didn't enjoy too much the first time around.

5. Sunshine Cleaning- Another film from CMJ, this is a fairly light comedy-drama dealing with some heavy subjects- death, loss, memory, mourning, family...It sort of veers in a number of aesthetic directions, from raw emotional honesty to semtimental cliche to "Little Miss Sunshine" (with which I believe it shares a producer) style cutsiness. Amy Adams and Emily Blunt play sisters who start a business cleaning up crime scenes. It's a clever concept, but the film doesn't hammer the cleverness into you, it's really more of a character piece. When it works it works quite well and the film, all told, is rather charming, due in no small part to excellent performances by Adams, Blunt, Clifton Collins, Mary Lynn Rajskub and especially Alan Arkin, who is so good I found him almost painful to watch. Seriously, Arkin has always been a great actor, but given the right material, in this film as opposed to "Little Miss Sunshine," which simply wasn't as well written, he's absolutely perfect.

6. Decampment- This 40-minute, silent, shot-on-video experimental horror movie was made by the electro punk band adult. for them to play live to. Rather than just a collection of images, though, they've crafted an effectively atmospheric work, shot in bleak, grey-skied Michigan woods and similarly Northern Gothic locales. The story is cryptic and more-or-less secondary to atmosphere, but the piece as a whole is witchy and powerful, especially with the band's live, throbby, pulsey score.

7. Zach & Miri Make a Porno- eh.

8. My Name is Bruce- Bruce Campbell has basically made a career out of being Bruce Campbell. Sure, he's in movies, kind of a lot of movies, but as an actor he's never been especially ambitious, despite his popularity in the "Evil Dead" film, his filmography consists mostly of straight-to-video/DVD and made for cable science fiction films. But as a personality in the world of fandom, appearing at conventions and screenings (I saw him at BAM a few years back and he was hilarious), in his autobiography "If Chins Could Talk" and his novel "How to Make Love the Bruce Campbell Way," he's creating a kind of living performance art piece, a living breathing parody of himself as a washed-up never ran who still maintains a high level of arrogance and vanity. This film, directed by Campbell from a script by comics/TV writer Mark Verheiden (of the new Battlestar Galactica, Smallville and Heroes), is the cinematic adaptation of that persona, with Campbell playing himself as a drunken has-been, recruited by a small town to fight a local demon (a bean curd demon, no less). It's slight and silly but also genuinely entertaining, and Campbell is generally a joy to watch, as much here as anywhere because he gets a chance to really do what he does best, tapping into his inner bastard. A definite must for all geeks and probably a fun diversion for anyone else (not as funny as "They Call Me Bruce," though).

9. How to Lose Friends and Alienate People- As previously discussed, Simon Pegg makes almost exclusively bad movies when not teamed with Edgar Wright, Nick Frost or Jessica Stephenson. This is easily his worst. Pegg plays real-life writer Toby Young, who apparently is one of the least likable, interesting or significant people to ever have a film made about them. This joyless, laughless comedy manages to be bland and vile both at once, while hitting every possible cliched note as though it were running down a checklist. Oddly, the film seems to be modelled structurally after notorious bad movies "The Oscar" and "The Lonely Lady," only without any of the high camp and clueless charm provided by either. And Megan Fox, why is she popular? I get that she's attractive, I'm a guy and I'm pretty good at sensing things like that, but you know who else is hot? Nearly every single other actress in Hollywood, most of them better performers as well, in fact I think it's generous to refer to her as a performer or actress at all. She's a prop. It makes sense that she appears in those Michael Bay action figure movies, but here, even as a spoiled, self-centered actress, she should excude at least some level of screen presence. Hell, she's out-acted here by Kirsten Dunst and Gillian Anderson, neither of them particularly good actresses and both of them doing a pretty lackluster job in this film. The only cast member who has any kind of spirit at all is Jeff Bridges, who as I've previously noted, is good in everything, no matter how bad the film, and this is truly one bad film. Grim and repellent, but fortunately also extremely forgettable. This string of bad Simon Pegg projects does not bode well for the "Star Trek" remake next year.

10. The Alphabet Killer- Rob Schmidt's "Wrong Turn" from a few years back was a pretty relentless backwoods slasher pic, good-but-not-great, and heavily indebted to a strong performance from lead actress Eliza Dushku. Here, Schmidt and Dushku team for a good-but-not-great film that is almost the exact opposite. Whereas "Wrong Turn" was a fast-paced and brutal horror flick, "the Alphabet Killer" is a slow, somewhat disjointed, very deliberately placed mystery, based on a true crime. It's a little alienating at first, but becomes increasingly involving as it moves along. Dushku, again, is kind of great to watch. I don't even know if she's a good actress, I just like her, she really has personality, even playing against type as a fairly quiet, introspective character. I guess she is a good actress, actually, kind of deceptively, almost. And maybe this was a better film than I intially thought, not that I really thought it was bad at all. Good supporting cast, too, including Timothy Hutton, Cary Elwes, Tom Noonan, Carl Lumbly and the great Michael Ironside, all of them, like Dushku, generally kind of underrated. Hell, I really liked "the Alphabet Killer."

Still more to come, as I get caught up with some DVDs and stuff...

Thursday, December 25, 2008

2008 part 2...

Here is my continuing look at the films of 2008, a year of cinema that kind of made me shrug my shoulders and say,"Eh, what else you got?" or something (I'm feeling a little dull-brained today so forgive my attempts at any kind of cleverness, humor or, y'know, wrting...)

1. Teeth- Certainly among my favorite films I saw this year, this tounge in cheek (so to speak) horror-comedy about a born again teenager who discovers vagina dentata upon her sexual awakening is...well, did you read that description? Written and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein, it's funny, sick, uncomfortable body horror balancing the cool veneer of Cronenberg with the sly humor and unsubtle social commentary of Romero. Star Jess Weixler is absolutely irresistable.

2. Son of Rambow- Another of my favorites of the year, this British film from the directors of the "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" film is imaginative and endearing without ever becoming overly self-impressedly clever or cloying. Set in the early 1980s, a young boy growing up in an ultraconservative religious sect (mom is played by Jessica Stepehenson of "Spaced") in the English countryside befriends at hyperactive juvenile delinquint at school. The wealthy bad kid has access to video equipment, and turns the other boy onto a tape of "First Blood," which becomes interwoven into the child's already very vivid fantasy life, and the two band together to film a video sequel- "Son of Rambow." Both are working towards differently emotional ends, dealing with family, love and loss, and their friendship is strained when a popular, ultracool French exchange student and his many followers get involved in the production. Moving, insightful and a wonderful celebration of the childhood ideal of play. Watch it twice.

3. Run, Fatboy, Run- As good as Simon Pegg's collaborations with director Edgar Wright and actor Nick Frost (and on TV, co-writer/co-ster Jessica Stephenson) are, his solo outings seem to be kind of unwatchable. Here, Pegg, as co-writer (with Michael Ian Black of "the State"), teams with actor-turned-director David Schwimmer (his costar in the medicore film "Big Nothing") for a predictable, unfunny comedy. On "Spaced," and in "Shaun of the Dead" and "Hot Fuzz," Pegg and company hit all the right notes, blending relatable characters and recognizably human drama with astute verbal wit, bouts of slapstick, smart pop culture references and the occasional splash of blood and gore, a package of disparate elements that somehow meld together with near perfection. These films use flights of fancy and generic elements to explore the malaise of the late-20's/early-30's man-child on the brink of extended adolescence and forced adulthood, something many of us 30-something manchildren can relate to, something that really resonates. All those things, "Run Fatboy Run" isn't. Rather, we get the same loveable loser finds redemption sappy sweet stuff we've seen a hundred times before. I know actors and filmmakers are loathe to be pidgeonholed as one-trick ponies, but if you're good at something, do that. Don't do this. Seriously, what a waste.

4. Superhero Movie- Yeah, that's right, I watched "Superhero Movie," although to be fair it was a screener, I didn't pay to see it. This movie is exactly what you think it is, a barrage of slapstick and scatalogical gags ala "Airplane" (though, as far as I know, not directed by a creepy right-wing fuck), right down the presence of octagenarian Leslie Nielsen. That it isn't especially funny kind of goes without saying, and it suffers further by predating "Dark Knight," "Iron Man," "Hulk" and "Hancock," making it out-of-date before it even came out. Too bad, because the young cast- Drake Bell, Sarah Paxton, Kevin Hart- does what they can with the weak material and comes off rather appealing despite the lameness of the film surrounding them.

5. Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay- Basically a joke-for-joke retread of the original, without the kicky nastiness of the original. The concept could have been somewhat brilliant had it maintained the first film's anarchic, subversive edge. Too bad it didn't. Like that Neil Patrick Harris, though (he fared much better this year in Joss Whedon's web series "Dr. Horrible's Sing a Long Blog").

6. Synechdoche, New York- I covered this here. As I said before, this film does an excellent job of portraying a character obsessed with his own mortality and physicality, a very human, very real character excellently played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Charlie Kaufman's presumed cleverness implodes under the weight of its' own pretensiousness, though, it's ultimately self-defeating as a character who resonates finds himself at the center of the film that doesn't at all. Yawn.

7. Donkey Punch- This British horror film is certainly stylish and sexy, but it fails to provide even one character whom the audience can care about. With a limited cast in a single setting, that makes this a near-impossible movie to care about. Still, it's viable as a mostly forgettable resource for softcore sex scenes and modest gore. Yawn.

8. Prom Night- It's hard to imagine a film as bland and unmemorable as the original "Prom Night," but here it is.

9. Funny Games- The original "Prom Night" wasn't much a film, so why not remake it? (Of course, they did a terminally mediocre job, but that's their problem). Michael Haneke's "Funny Games," though, is a harrowing and effective if somewhat pretentious horror film that stands perfectly well on its' own. The only purpose of this extremely faithful remake, by Haneke, is to import the film sans subtitles and plus name actors. Is it simply a crass marketing ploy? Or just an academic exercise for the filmmaker? Or this there something more to be gleaned from this film? Probably not on that last one, but I liked the original, and given the nature of this kind of remake, it made me difficult not to like the new version as well. A remake of Haneke's "Benny's Video" might have been more interesting, though. Still, Tim Roth is very good as the dad here.

10. The Ruins- Reviewed here. The more I think back on this film, the more I kind of love it. Like "Punisher War Zone," it's stripped down the bare essentials, doesn't take itself too seriously, provides some interesting characters and good performances and some genuinely disturbing moments of violence, horror and terror. In an era where forced cleverness and self-importance abounds, I really value these films that know exactly what they are and what they intend to do, and do it with a certain gutsiness, not entirely unlike the films of Roger Corman or Sam Fuller, solid b-movies that break the generic mode and show at bit of individual creativity from their makers.

More to come. Merry Christmas and stuff...

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

2008 part 1...

I'm really not that hep on the idea of "best of" lists. Best, worst...I mean, who's to say, really? Is it really possible to make a definitive characterization of something as being "the best" when it comes to art and media? I don't know. Obviously, I don't posting lists of my favorites of things, as I did in the last posts with the "20 Favorite Actresses" meme, or 'round Halloween with my "31 Films of Halloween" posts. So I'm not going to post a "best of 2008" list. I think I posted "best of 2007"- or was it favorites of 2007- last year, but this year, I dunno, I just don't feel as strongly about things that I've seen, but anyway, it begins...

1. Punisher War Zone- I was surprised at how impressed I was by Lexie Alexander's adaptation of this comic book character, the third film about the Punisher and by far the best (although I have a certain soft spot in my heart for the barely released Dolph Lundgren version from 1989, from the director of the Treat Williams-Joe Piscopo horror comedy "Dead Heat," no less). "Punisher War Zone" is a lean and mean action film, really stripped down to the barest of essentials and propelled in large part by a quietly souful performance by Ray Stephenson as the titular vigilante. Never taking itself too seriously, yet never veering off into (unintentional) ridiculousness, this is one of the few comic book movies I've seen that actually kind of feels like a comic book. But it also works as a slightly tounge-in-cheek, splattery action flick as well. I could definitely see this movie, or a very similar version therof, being made with Lee Marvin (ala "Prime Cut") or Charles Bronson (witness "The Mechanic") in the 1970s, or by John Woo in Hong Kong in the 1980s.

2. The Dark Knight- Basically the symetrical opposite of "Punisher War Zone," the shockingly overhyped 2nd Batman film by Christopher Nolan is all excess and self-importance. From the pointlessly overinflated running time (two and a half hours plus) to every single character's constant reiteration in every scene of their basic philosophical intent, pretty much everything about this film rubbed the wrong way (as did the boring predecessor "Batman Begins"). That so many viewers and critics fell for this film is beyond me. Although I enjoyed Aaron Eckhardt as Two Face, Gary Oldman as Jim Gordon and Michael Caine as Alfred the Butler, none of the other major players made much of an impression or resonated, especially Christian Bale as Batman, who portrays the character with such a ridiculously gruff growling voice it borders on the idiotic, and plays Bruce Wayne, even in candid moments, with such smarminess, I found nothing in the character particarly compelling. It doesn't help that Batman disappears for looooong stretches of the film, and that introspective moments with Bruce Wayne or nonexistant. I don't mean to be rude or speak ill of the dead, but Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker didn't do it for me either, it felt like a thrice removed impersonation of Jack Nicholson from the 1989 film, although to be fair I didn't really care for the way the character is depicted in the script to begin with. It's very far removed from the comic book version and from my favorite non-comics representation of the character, Mark Hammill in "Batman the Animated Series" (still my favorite adapation of the comic book, with the new, very cool "Batman the Brave and the Bold" animated series coming in second). Ultimately, some of these things might have been excusable if the movie had felt like it was actually ABOUT anything, but most of the non-action scenes felt like filler between the action setpieces. I know many people have responded to this more serious version of the Batman character, but "the Dark Knight" felt too violent and joyless. Comic books are colorful and fun, even something relatively serious like "Batman- the Killing Joke" (certainly an influence here) or "Watchmen" has that sense of color and exaggeration. The violence works in something like "Punisher War Zone" because that's what that character is all about, but Batman is supposed to be "the world's greatest detective" as well as a martial artist and gadget afficianado. None of that is on display here. It's just Batman fighting the Joker, the Joker killing people, and some other mafia shit (and, very briefly, Two-Face) for a loooong, grim two and a half hours. And if you're supposedly putting forth such a deep psychological profile of the character, explain to me why someone so deeply traumatized by gun violence as a child, to the extent that he would put on a bat costume and devote the rest of his life to fighting crime (without using a gun or killing anyone), would mount giant machineguns to his motorcycle? (I know pointing out something like that makes me kind of a Dork Knight, but think about it, or don't, I don't really give a fuck, I just wanted to throw that "Dork Knight" gag in here somewhere).

3. "Iron Man"- Since we're on a roll with the superhero movies, here's another one that did absolutely nothing for me, even less than "the Dark Knight." "The Dark Knight" I just found kind of bland and pointless, "Iron Man" struck me as genuinely kind of repellant. It's the superhero movie for fans of Judd Apatow and that general frat culture aesthetic. It's the superhero movie for people who read "Maxim" and watch "Entourage." It's a film, made during wartime, about a millionaire (billionaire?) war profiteer who slaughters Middle-Eastern villagers with a flamethrower (the exact same thing, except with Vietnam, parodied in "Watchmen" twenty plus years earlier)- this is basically the Bush-era Reagan jack-off military industrial complex narratively uncomplex wet dream come to life, or movie life, or whatever, it was a piece of shit, morally disturbing and disturbingly popular. The post credit scene with Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury was kinda cool, though. But seriously, this movie fucking sucked. And so what if Robert Downey Jr. was good in this, he's good in everything. He was good in "Weird Science." Big fucking deal. I thought Jeff Bridges was good in this too, but if I really want to see a good Jeff Bridges performance in a much better film, I can watch basically almost any other movie he's ever been in. They're good actors, why is it so incredulous to everyone that they'd still be good in a comic book movie?

4. "Hancock"- Another superhero flick, this one not based on a comic, and really not too bad either. Will Smith, for all the shitty movies he does, is a credible and charismatic performer, and I found him pretty compelling as a drunken reluctant superhero. I also enjoyed Jason Bateman as his sort of sidekick and PR man. But "Hancock" is ultimately uneven, teetering uncomfortably and awkwardly between comedy, which works, and attempts at seriousness and melodrama, which don't. The third act addition of a hook handed villain is pretty pointless, but almost unnoticeable, since everything that happens once Charlize Theron, as Bateman's wife (intentional or not, a welcomed allusion to their ill-fated romance on "Arrested Development"), is revealed as having superpowers and ties to Hancock's past, is basically incoherent, concluding with Hancock inexplicably drawing a giantic red heart on the moon. Seriously. As a comedy, though, "Hancock" really has some moments, whether it's the title character shooting holes in things with his dick, or Donald Gibb's (Ogre from the "Revenge of the Nerds" films) brief cameo as a burly yet sensitive convict in a prison AA meeting. There are also some clever soundtrack clues as well, including th 45 King's "the 1-900 number" (aka the Ed Lover dance song) and Ice T's "Colors."

5. "Step Brothers"- Shifting gears a little, I more-or-less enjoyed this Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly gross-out comedy from Adam McKay, the director of other Ferrell films "Anchorman" and "Tallageda Nights," also with Reilly. The presence of producer Judd Apatow is felt in this film's kind of listless nastiness and thorough devotion to unpleasantness, something of a trademark in Apatow films, and indeed, this is definitely toned-down stylistically but keyed-up in terms of vulgarity in relation to previous Ferrell vehicles. But it strikes a balance that often works, even if the film as a whole is kind of nothing, the individual moments are reasonably hilarious in their absurdity. And it's certainly a credit to the cast that they remain pretty appealing despite the frequent nastiness of the material. AND it's the rare Hollywood film these days that's actually about something, and vaguely subervise if somewhat maudlin in the final reel, but it attacks aggression-driven, late capitalist culture in its' portrayal of supposed "adults" as obnoxious assholes who bow to the most ridiculous excesses of consumer culture. Particularly hilarious is the notion that once Ferrell has "sold out," he enjoys eating at Outback Steakhouse. As such, it's a celebration of the reverse, the sense of imagination and playfulness exhibited by Ferrell and Reilly's men-children characters, and in that respect illicts a certain quality of joyousness as well. Really, not a bad film.

6. "The Promotion"- Even more low-key but less frequently hilarious is this decent yet slight take on the culture of middle management starring John C. Reilly and Sean William Scott, written and directed by Steve Conrad, who also penned the suprisingly excellent Nicholas Cage-Gore Verbinsky film "The Weather Man" a few years back. Like Shawn at Branded in the 80's, I've long associated Scott with his obnoxious role in "American Pie," a film I really disliked, and because have that have offhandedly kind of dismissed him for many years, but lately I've been really impressed by his performances as a non-obnoxious, non-aggressive, very identifiable kind of character. Here he's the assistant manager of a grocery store vying for a managerial position at the chain's new location who suddenly finds himself in competition with Reilly, playing a Canadian transplant, ex-addict, ex-biker (yet really sort of a nerd)-turned-family man after the same position. "The Promotion" avoids cliches by portraying both of its' leads as basically decent, well-meaning people on the verge of compromising their values in order to provide for their families. It's lack of cynicism is welcome, even if the laughs aren't particularly fast and furious, Conrad eschew's exaggeration and outrageousness for a more belieable, intimate feel. That said, this isn't exactly a film that will stay with you long after you've watched it, and although it has the milieu of corporate culture, it's not the kind of parody of corporate culture as found in something like "Office Space" or "the Office" (the American version of which it shares cast member Jenna Fischer), and as such doesn't resonate quite as much as those works. The supporting cast is pretty great, including Lili Taylor, Jason Bateman, Rick Gonzalez (from "Reaper") and Adrian Martinez (Quincy Jones' fake brother from one episode of "Flight of the Conchords").

7. "The Ex"- Yet another film with Jason Bateman, that dude certainly gets around. This flick was horrible though. As a comedy, it wasn't just trite and unfunny, it had a genuine kind of ickiness to it, revolving around the physicality of the characters and everyone's relationship to their bodies and, particularly, their gentials, or something. This is the kind of generic, thoughtless, charmless by-the-numbers junk churned out by the dozens, but it doesn't even make it to the most basic level of depicting some form of recognizable humanity, nor does it have the kind of unbridled enthusiasm or vulgarity that can wring laughs from even the most rote of screenplays or the most bland of sub-sitcom level direction. Fuck, even the presence of the likes of Charles Grodin, Mia Farrow and Amy Poehler fail to raise this movie to a level of adequacy. (whoops, I just looked this up on imdb and realized it came out like 2 years ago. I'm leaving the capsule up just because, and seriously, don't watch it, because it's awful).

8. "Baby Mama" I reviewed this here and don't have much else to say about it. Another icky, mostly unfunny film with Amy Poehler.

9. "Tropic Thunder" I reviewed this here and haven't gained any particular insight on it in the interim. Yes, I laughed, but at the expense of a small piece of my soul.

10. "Hamlet 2" Another film, reviewed here, I enjoyed but didn't really like, and felt like maybe I was supporting something, both philosophically and financially, kind of horrible and culturally cancerous by going to see, be it Steve Coogan's drug habit or Hollywood's casual antisemitism. Still, better in many ways than the somewhat similar "Tropic Thunder."

11. "Role Models" Finally, a comedy that's actually good. No caveats, no "I liked it but..." or "I liked it despite..." this movie I just liked. Paul Rudd and Sean William Scott are perfect as the lead pair of misfits, Rudd a disenfranchised misanthrope, Scott a self-involved partier, co-workers who are thrust together in a "big brother" type program in order to avoid going to jail. They're paired with two equally misfit kids, Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the socially retarded, D&D obsessed Augie, and Bobb'e Thompson as the anarchically rambunctions, titty-obsessed Ronnie. Aside from great performances- and all four leads Rudd, Scott, Mintz-Plasse and especially the young Thompson are totally perfect- "Role Models" benefits, I think, from the lack of involvement of Judd Apatow, who seems like he would have had a hand in here somewhere, but doesn't, thankfully, and, as written (with Rudd and several others) and directed by David Wain of "the State" and "Wet Hot American Summer," it lacks the Apatow brand's signature nastiness. Yeah, I know I've been harping on this point alot, and I don't even feel like I've really fully expressed it, but there's something just kind of grim and joyless about Apatow productions, even when they're funny, even when they resonate, they come from a deeply non-comedic place, not so much as products of misanthropy or depression (both of which can be very funny), or something, I dunno...Kafka-esque, an examination of the absuridty of life, I guess you'd say existential, which can also be very funny. No, Apatow's films, both as director and producer, emanate from something deeply flawed yet ingrained in our culture, in the collective psyche, not as an examination of it or a reaction from the outside of it, but as a product of it. They are deeply inside the mainstream. Y'know, he makes DMV films, films that just plod through the horribleness of everything with no opposition, no self-reflexivity...Anyway, "Roles Models" is thankfully an outsider film, though more conventional than Wain's "Wet Hot American Summer," he and Rudd and company are really vigorously interrogating popular culture and even the conventions of linguistics and human interaction here. One of the film's more subtle and clever threads has many of its' characters, including Scott and a very funny Jane Lynch as the big brother program's head, speaking in incomprehensible platitudes, cliches, misquotes and generally thoughless, meaningless non-communicative attacks on language. Rudd goes off on a coffee shop clerk for calling a large coffee and "vente." Little Ronnie cuts to the message bluntly, when admonished for his language, he replies, "Motherfucker, my language is English..." But more than a cute film with an admirable message, "Role Models" is frequently hilarious. All the leads give really believable, intuative performances, I think most audience members will indentify with at least one of them (I felt a particular connection with Rudd's self-hatred reflected outwards toward the world), and they're well aided by a supporting cast including Ken Marino, Kerri Kenny, Joe Lo Truglio and Wain himself (all from "the State"), AJ Miles, Matt Walsh, Elizabeth Banks, Ken Jeong, Nicole Randall Johnson, Vincent Martella and Alexandra Stamler. I dunno, I should have written a longer review of this after I saw it, because I think the whole commincations aspect is really interesting and worthy of discussion, but to put the charm and humor of this film in perspective- I hate Kiss, the band. I fucking hate them. I hate their music, hate their schtick, their crass commercialism, and, from watching them on various TV shows and "Decline of Western Civilization 2- the Metal Years," I think they're horrible awful fucking people. But towards the end of this film, as the lead quartet take to the field of Augie's live action role playing game all dressed out in Kiss costumes, with little Ronnie in a Gene Simmons wig, it was such a triumphant moment, that I forgot what has been basically a lifelong disgust and contempt for one of the world's worst, most overrated and overexposed bands, a group that I will amost not be friend with people who like, and just sort of basked in the glory of it all. "Role Models" is funny and touching without being maudlin or schmaltzy, it's a thoroughly enjoyable film and hands down the funniest comedy I saw all year.

More to come. Happy Holidays!

Monday, December 22, 2008

20 actresses meme...

I caught this over at Cinebeats, a great blog on 1960s & 1970s films, and figured I'd participate as well. Because participitation counts towards your grade. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and is in no order other than the order in which I thought of the names (thought clearly I think vaguely chronologically). Some thoughts, having done this- most of my favorite actresses are dead, a lot of them are British, almost none of them are contemporary (although a handful are still active), most have done horror films althogh none of them are specifically known as horror stars, many were in film noir, a number had "troubled" personal lives, not all were conventional beauties and some who were continued acting as their beauty faded, if beauty can really ever fade, it's in the eye of the beholder I suppose blah blah blah blah here's the list:

1.Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity, the File on Thelma Jordan, Clash by Night, Forty Guns, the Night Walker)

2.Lizabeth Scott (the Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Dead Reckoning, I Walk Alone, Too Late for Tears, the Racket, Stolen Face)

3.Ida Lupino (Out of the Fog, Moontide, Road House (1948), On Dangerous Ground, the Big Knife, Private Hell 36, director of The Hitch-Hiker, the Bigamist, Hard Fast & Beautiful, Never Fear)

4.Gloria Grahame (It's a Wonderful Life, Crossfire, In a Lonely Place, Sudden Fear, the Big Heat, the Glass Wall, Chilly Scenes of Winter, Melvin & Howard)

5.Veronica Lake (Sullivan's Travels, This Gun for Hire, the Glass Key)

6.Joan Crawford (the Unknown, Mildred Pierce, Sudden Fear, Johnny Guitar, Queen Bee, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, Strait-Jacket, I Saw What You Did, Berserk!)

7.Elizabeth Taylor (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Reflections in a Golden Eye, Secret Ceremony, Winter Kills)

8.Tuesday Weld (Rock Rock Rock, Sex Kitten go to College, TV's the Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Lord Love a Duck, Pretty Poison, Who'll Stop the Rain, Thief, Once Upon a Time in America)

9.Sissy Spacek (Prime Cut, Badlands, Carrie, 3 Women)

10.Sandy Dennis (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, That Cold Day in the Park, God Told Me To, 976-Evil, Parents, the Indian Runner)

11.Rita Tushingham (The Knack...and How to Get It, Smashing Time, the Bed Sitting Room, Straight on Til Morning)

12.Susan George (Fright, Straw Dogs, Venom)

13.Judy Geeson (Berserk!, Doomwatch, Fear in the Night, Insemenoid, the Plague Dogs)

14.Lynne Frederick (No Blade of Grass, Vampire Circus, Phase IV, Four of the Apocalypse)

15.Cheryl Rainbeaux Smith (Lemora, the Swinging Cheerleaders, Caged Heat, Phantom of the Paradise, Farewell My Lovely, Massacre at Central High, Revenge of the Cheerleaders, the Incredible Melting Man, Laserblast, Melvin & Howard)

16.Jenny Wright (the Wild Life, Near Dark, the Chocolate War, Twister (1989), I Madman, a Shock to the System)

17. Julie Christie (Petulia, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, Don't Look Now, Demon Seed)

18. Jessica Harper (Inserts, Phantom of the Paradise, Suspiria, Stardust Memories, Shock Treatment, Pennies from Heaven, Safe, Boys)

19. Charlotte Rampling (Asylum, Zardoz, the Night Porter, Farewell My Lovely, Stardust Memories, the Verdict, Swimming Pool)

20. Mary Woronov (Chelsea Girls, Death Race 2000, Hollywood Boulevard, Cannonball, Rock N Roll High School, Eating Raoul, Get Crazy, Night of the Comet, Hellhole, Terrorvision, Warlock, the Living End)