Wednesday, January 30, 2008

jumping on the 10 best bandwagon

My friend Nate over at New York Film Review just posted his 10 best list for 2007 (film-wise, that is), and I figured maybe baby I'd ought to do the same. Honestly, this year, I didn't see a ton of new films in the theatre, but instead, went to more revivals and festivals. Many of the films I saw theatrically were pretty bad ("Die Hard 4", "Fantastica Four 2"), and many were decent but not necessarily top-shelf, top-1o kind of stuff ("Joshua," "Sicko"), so I've decided to allow for anything I saw in a theatre this year to be eligible for the list, as well as anything from the year I saw on video, or that debuted on video.

1. "Eastern Promises"- Almost any year David Cronenberg has a film out, it's my favorite film of the year. Cronenberg is cinema's true humanist, his films revel in everything about humanity, from the mind to the physical form of the body itself, to relationships and cultural affiliations. It helps that his films are usually dramatically exciting and full or wry humor. And in this film specifically you get a great performance by Viggo Mortensen as the icing on the cake. It's not as a great as Cronenberg's last film, "History of Violence," but then again, what is?

2. "Bug"- After years of grinding out mediocre psychological action thrillers, "Exorcist" filmmaker William Friedkin returns with his first interesting film since 1988's little-seen "Rampage." "Bug" is a demanding, harrowing cinematic experience with a great script by "Killer Joe" playwright "Tracy Letts," and engaging, genuinely upsetting performances by Michael Shannon and (who woulda thunk it?) Ashley Judd. Not to be a total cock about it, but my friend (and an excellent actor!) Bryan O' Byrne has a small but pivotal role in this (I feel like a dick for mentioning he's my friend, and I'd feel like a dick if I mentioned this film without slinging some of the praise his way. You can only lose).

3. "My Brother's Wedding"- Most of the other top 10 lists I've read this year have praised the re-release of Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep," and rightfully so, but I'd also like to draw attention to the unearthing of Burnett's lesser known feature from 1983 (as well as several of his short films) on DVD and Turner Classic Movies. If you live in NYC, don't miss the retrospect of his work at Anthology Film Archives later in February.

4. "White of the Eye"- The late Donald Cammell's superb and surprising 1987 thriller had a rare screening as part of Walter Reade Theatre's Film Comment Selects series in 2007. I was psyched to finally get a glimpse of this little seen film from the director of "Demon Seed" and the co-director of "Performance," which has been long out-of-print on video and has yet the emerge on DVD. This is a beautiful yet despair-filled film about the failure of the ideals of the 1960's, and the emptiness of materialism and culture in the 1980's. The violent finale plays like a psychedelic version of "The Terminator," and Cathy Moriarty is great as the film's heroine.

5. "Never Belongs to Me"- AKA the penis gun movie, this low-budget Korean trash mini-epic by Nam Gee-woong is one of the most aggressively weird films you'll ever see, and also one of the most oddly endearing. Hopefully someone will pick this up for DVD release in the states, though, sadly, a theatrical release seems unlikely.

6. "Eagle Vs. Shark"- Speaking of endearing, this lo-fi comedy from New Zealand is nothing but, largely thanks to a subtle yet remarkably expressive performance by the irresistible by Loren Horsley (marry me?), as well as great supporting turns by Joel Tobeck and "Flight of the Conchord's" Jemaine Clement.

7. "Go Go Tales"- Abel Ferrara's latest showed at the 2007 New York Film Festival, but unfortunately I don't think it has U.S. distribution yet. It's a shame, because Ferrara's goofy take on the screwball comedy (this is coming, mind you, from the director of "Driller Killer" and "Bad Lieutenant") is full of unexpected warmth, humanity and joy, even as it depicts a set of dysfunctional, constantly-bickering characters. Good enough to overlook the casting of skanky Asia Argento.

8. "The Host"- I actually saw this at the 2006 New York Film Festival, but it ran theatrically in 2007, so I'm including it. Humanity seems to be the keyword on this list, and indeed, Bong Joon-ho's film is a giant monster movie with humanity, focusing on the tribulations generally pretty dysfunctional Seoul family in the face of a monster attack. While stateside bullshit like "Cloverfield" revel in spectacle (and playing cynically on 9/11 imagery), "The Host" actually tries to imagine what an attack of this kind might be like from a human perspective. And it works as a monster movie, too.

9. "I'm a Cyborg, but That's Okay"- Yet another Korean film (by "Oldboy" filmmaker Chan-wook Park), and yet another film with humanity, this time, ironically enough, expressing its' humanity through depicting a character who believes they are in fact a cyborg. Narratively simple but visually fanciful, this is an aesthetically beautiful film that resonates emotionally as well, portraying with a kind of cinematic version of magical realism a literal interpretation of that mechanical feeling that comes with severe depression, depicted here as a by-product of the anonymity of the worker in late-capitalism. Also, it has robots.

10. "Tears of the Black Tiger"- This candy colored Thai film plays like a 1950's Douglas Sirk melodrama cross-bred with a 1960's Spaghetti western. Visually arresting and aesthetically consistent, this is easily one of the most entertaining films ever made, and without even the slightest hint of cynicism. Pure cinematic pleasure.

Honorable mentions to Kyoshi Kurosawa's "Retribution" (from Japan), Bob Odenkirk's goofy, hilarious "Brothers Solomon" and Omar Khan's "Hell's Ground," the first zombie-gore-slasher film from Pakistan.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

whoopsy doodle

Yikes, I just realized in my last post I accidentally wrote that I was posting my "favorite websites by people I don't necessarily enjoy." What I meant to write is "websites I enjoy by people I don't necessarily know." If you're one of the people whose websites I linked to and you looked at the page and read that, I'm super sorry, it was totally a typo, so don't think I'm a total dick or anything. Get to know me first, then you can think I'm a dick. Or something. Anyway, I fixed it so it reads more politely now.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

negative update

Hey, not much to report at the moment. I'm going to try to get at least one new review up this weekend, and am still planning, eventually, on adding some new comics material in the not-so-distant future. In the meantime, I've updated the links section, adding a few friends' websites, and a new section of websites I enjoy by people I don't necessarily know. Speaking on enjoyment, please do. Can I go to bed now?

Saturday, January 19, 2008

the girl next d'oh my god, that's horrible...

...not horrible bad movie, though, but horrible hard to watch. Disturbing. What the fuck are you talking about, Harris? Well, how's about a roundabout explanation first? One of the best things about doing a post a day for Halloween in October is that it got me to watch a couple of newer horror films I might not have gazed otherwise, or might have waited on longer to see, but which turned out to be pretty good, especially "Fido" and "Severance." It was encouraging, since for the most part, new horror films are pretty bad, pretty fucking bad. They're either dumb-as-dirt torture porn, or inferior remakes of films from the 70s or 80s (or Korea or Japan), or else...well, that's pretty much it. There's a few half-decent things out there. I didn't mind "Turistas," and the "Final Destination" films have been alright, but far from earth shattering. Which is to say that when something kinda good comes along, it's a welcome surprise and kind of a treat, though "treat" isn't really the word I'd use to describe tonight's creature feature, "The Girl Next Door" (2007), directed by Gregory Wilson.

I'm not really up on my horror fiction, but I guess Jack Ketchum is one of the bigger names in the genre. Not Stephen King big, but big enough, I guess, to have some films based on his books. I actually saw Ketchum speak at a screening of an earlier film based on one of his novels, "The Lost" (2005). That film was pretty so-so, despite being produced by "May" (so far probably this decade's best horror film) Lucky McKee, and Ketchum himself failed to impress. Mostly I was put off by the fact that he was wearing a t-shirt with his own picture on it. What up with that? Well, anyway, I came to "The Girl Next Door," also based on a novel by Ketchum, without a ton of enthusiasm, which in the end probably actually added to my cinematic experience, since in the end I wound up with much more than I expected.

Not only is "The Girl Next Door" a pretty decent film, but it's an extremely disturbing one. Many of the scenes and the idea in general veer into the area of torture porn, but "Girl Next Door" has a number of things going for it that all of the various subscarious "Hostels" and "Saws" don't. For one thing, it centers on characters who are something other than a bunch of witless, horny 20-somethings, and it puts a real and identifiable face on it's source of evil, which I guess is a way of saying that the film has a sense of humanity. The audience certainly feels for the victim here, as well as the characters who have to stand by and watch the bad shit go down, and while the tormentors are far from sympathetic, they are identifiably human- flawed, sick, cruel, but definitely human.

The film opens up in the present with very underrated actor William Atherton ruminating on the nature of pain and leading us into the story proper, which takes place in his 1950s suburban childhood. David (the younger version of Atherton's character, played as a child by Daniel Manche, who's quite good), lives next door to his best friends, a houseful of brothers living with their single mom, something of the neighborhood Queen Bee, Ruth (Blanche Baker). The kids, including some other boys from the neighborhood, consider Ruth one of the gang. She hangs out with them and talks trash, gives them beers and generally acts like a pal.

Things start to change when two of Ruth's female cousins, Meg and Susan, have to move in with her and the boys after the girls' parents are killed in an auto accident. David immediately takes a shine to Meg (very well played by Blyhte Auffarth), but it soon becomes apparent that she and Ruth aren't getting along well. Things seem to be getting pretty bad, even abusive, but not beyond the realm of your sort of average, everyday general child abuse. Though I was aware that this was a horror film, I had yet to really know what the source of horror was coming from, despite the growing sense of dread coming from the uncomfortable relationship between Meg and Ruth.

And then, pretty suddenly, "The Girl Next Door" goes out of control. It slaps you across the face with numerous scenes of brutality that are disturbing on many levels. First off, they're unexpected, since the film has only vaguely hinted at Ruth's capability for cruelty. Secondly, the scenes involve children, both as the victims and the tormentors. In this respect, the film challenges a number of notions regarding the innocence of children and the sanctity of motherhood. I don't want to give too much away, just see the film, but be warned, these scenes, which make up about half the film, are extremely violent and disturbing and even include a child-on-child rape that casts a depressing shadow over the rest of the movie.

The ending, surprisingly, is a bit of a let down, but in some respects it's also very effective. There's not much a big finale, but really the damage is already done and can't be undone, there's no way out, no easy resolution, perhaps no resolution at all. It's apparent in the wraparound segment with Atherton that the events that transpired in his childhood have determined the course of the rest of his life, and though he's managed, it seems, to eek out a relatively normal existence, any kind of real happiness and peace are pretty much impossible. And he's one of the good guys.

So, yeah, "The Girl Next Door" is definitely a serious slice of negative pleasure. The first part of the movie lulls you into a sense of comfort with childhood innocence and suburban idyll (accentuated all the more by the fact it takes place in the 1950's, an era commonly associated with a simpler and more innocent time), only to suddenly, shockingly pull out the rug from under you. You're enjoying the film, watching the kids be kids, wondering what's going to happen between David and Meg, and then, bam, things just get all fucked up. And like few other effectively disturbing films I've seen ("Fat Girl" comes to mind), the shock stays with you, the sense of dread and despair manifest physically in the viewer. This is an uncomfortable film to watch, and one that sticks with you, but that's the power of film, good cinema. A good movie can really mess with your shit, and "The Girl Next Door" mess you up plenty.

So check it out, says me, give it a chance to get under your skin and it will. But, fuck, I dunno, maybe have something silly on hand to peep afterwards for a decompressor. For that, I'd gotta recommend "The Brothers Solomon," the newest film by Mr. Show's Bob Odenkirk, who also directed the very funny "Let's Go to Prison." For some reason Odenkirk's directorial efforts have gone mostly under the radar, but they're pretty fucking funny, and Odenkirk has a very unique comedic vision.

So, yeah, kind of a grim outing this time around, "Brothers Solomon" nonwithstanding (I just realized I mentioned that one in my last post, too, but fuck it, it's a funny flick), but film is an art and art isn't always about escapism. Check back here often for more freaky flicks and, seriously I swear I promise, some more good comics related stuff coming soon.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

kinski returns

It's been a few moons, but I finally managed to lay eyes on another film starring Klaus Kinski. Why such a long break? I've gone through the excuses before- adjusting to the new job, coming down with the flu over the holidays, in truth I haven't been watching as many movies lately (down from 1-2 a day to 2-3 a week), and when I have been watching movies, I've been going for some fairly easily digestible stuff, comedies mostly, that being my favorite genre for just kicking back and relaxing with fun flick. Anysways, my Netflix have been piling up and on my last day off, I finally got the gumption to pop "Venus in Furs" into the movie playing machine. I'd never given this 1969 film much thought, largely because it's directed by Jesus Franco, from Spain, a filmmaker I've generally always avoided. Why? The tremendously prolific Franco (who worked as a 2nd United Director for Orson Welles) is notorious for the uneven quality of his films. I knew he had a few masterpieces under his belt, but the majority of his filmography is made up of master pieces of shit. Anyway, I guess it was time to take the plunge, so with "Venus in Furs," I entered the world of Franco...

Fortunately, this film turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It's strange, dreamy, beautiful, trippy, fun and sexy. The story, largely influenced by Hitchcock's "Vertigo" and Otto Preminger's "Laura" (and in turn, seemingly an influence on Norman Mailer's "Tough Guys Don't Dance" and the more recent David Lynch films), centers on Jimmy, a hipster jazz trumpet player just kind of drifting around Europe, going from gig to gig and lady to lady. Confused Jimmy finds the naked corpse of a woman on the beach, and remembers she might be the same woman he saw murdered at a party (a swinging party, as a matter of fact, held by kinky Kinski, playing a rich pervert, natch) sometime earlier.

Jimmy continues his aimless European tour. He shacks up with foxy Rita, but is still haunted by the murdered woman, at first figuratively, but then literally, when he meets Wanda, who bears a striking resemblance to the murdered woman. Jimmy is infatuated with Wanda, naturally, and at first Rita seems cool with it, but eventually she splits the scene and Jimmy and Wanda shack up. Meanwhile, Wanda has her own agenda, tracking down the killers of the murdered woman she may or may not be, and pretending to seduce them, while ultimately killing them or getting them to kill themselves.

This is all making the movie sound much more linear than it actually is. "Venus in Furs" has a languid, dreamy quality and for the most part the story takes a backseat to the atmosphere and frequently fairly psychedelic visuals. This could have been annoying, a slice of scummy 60's Eurosleaze masquerading as an art film, but it all works quite well as a slightly sleazy, slightly arty murderously mysterious mood piece. Jimmy is well played by James Darren, the original Moondoggie (in the Gidget films). African-American singer Barbara McNair is Rita, and Franco regular Maria Rohm, from Austria, is the Venus in question, Wanda. Both are quite beautiful and good actresses. UK actor Dennis Price, a one-time leading man who went on to do a number of horror films, also appears, as does Manfred Mann, briefly, as a jazz musician. Kinski only has two scenes and speaks very little, but they're both wonderfully perverse, and as usual he lets his crazy eyes do most of the talking. Price died in 1973, McNair last year. Franco is in his 70s but still making films.

As long as I'm on the scene, I might as well mention two other good films I caught recently, the first being "the Brothers Solomon." This didn't make much of an impression at the box office, I don't think, I believe I saw it on some critics worst films of the year list, but I found it hilarious. It's directed by Bob Odenkirk, of Mr. Show fame, who was similarly ignored for the nearly-as-hilarious "Let's go to Prison" two years ago. Both films show Odenkirk as a filmmaker with a particular comedic vision, one that is definitely off-kilter and unique, often quite subtle, occasionally more broad, but ultimately very unconventional and original. I suppose it's not humor for all tastes, being pretty unabashedly vulgar, but I find both films' blend of wide-eyed naivety with crass cynicism kind of perfect. Will Arnett of "Arrested Development" and Chi McBride of "Pushing Daisies" appear in both films and are excellent comedic actors.

I can feel my ability to make words go lessering as my tiredness gets more, so I'll also briefly say nice things about "Eagle vs. Shark." I ignored this New Zealand film when it played for a minute in theatres, despite favorable reviews, because critics compared it to Napoleon Dynamite, a film I didn't really care for. The comparison is fair, as the character played in "Eagle vs. Shark" by Jemaine Celment (of Flight of the Conchords), is a gawky nerd obsessed with kung-fu, who often lashes out when frustrated, and exaggerates and lies to impress the people around him. But Napoleon Dynamite was a cartoon, lacking any real humanity or depth, two things that "Eagle vs. Shark" has in spades. This is a very compassionate, often somewhat difficult, extremely human film, and fortunately, it's also very funny. The acting is uniformly great, with female lead Loren Horsley coming off completely irresistible, and equally great turns by Clement, as her loser boyfriend who takes her on a trip to his hometown so he can beat up his high school bully, and Joel Tobeck, as Horsley's good natured older brother. I dunno, I'm tired and words can't make not more, but watch these films and be happier for a while, or something. Sleeping.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

'turistas' doesn't suck that much

Yowza, New Year's seems like a long time ago, even though it was less than a week. That flu was a motherfucker. I spent most of New Year's day and the day after sleeping, then I've been working every day since, and generally settling into a pleasant, if tiring, start to the New Year. Tomorrow's my first day off since getting over the flu, and also my first radio show of 2008, so that's something to be excited about, I guess. The new job continues to go well. My duties are generally pretty interesting (buying records, ordering records, stocking records, listening to records, talking about records...) and my co-workers are all really cool. Of course, the culture of the store where I'm at is terminally dysfunctional, but that really only marginally touches me in my little buyer's corner, more of an occasional annoyance than a genuine grievance. In terms of liking what I do, being interested in it and maybe kind of good at it, as well as liking most, really all, of the people I work with, it's probably the best job I've ever had. Not in terms of pay, unfortunately, but at least it's not the worst paying gig I ever had. Anyway, pretty much for the first time ever, I'm generally pretty happy on the employment front. Which I'm sure means they're going to fucking axe me come first thing Monday morning, or maybe I'll just get hit by a car or something...

Anyway, between being sick and working I haven't watched a ton of films lately, and not a ton worth writing about (I have been reading alot of comics, but I haven't had the chance to scan anything). I still haven't made it to "Mystics in Bali," at least past the first ten minutes, which promise a degree of sheer mania to rival the wackier moments of "Horrors of Malformed Men." I did watch, as mentioned a few posts ago, the TV film "Fallen Angel," about child pornography. That was a tough one to get a bead on. In some ways, it was kind of good, but, being a 1980s TV movie, it was also goofy as well. But then, watching it, you realize you're giggling at child pornography- well, not actual child pornography, but a story about it, and then comes the shame, the deep, deep shame.

It's also a weird flick because it's dealing with something very sexually taboo, yet as a TV film, it's extremely tame. Which doesn't detract from the impact of the story so much as, well, I dunno, it's something weird. And speaking of weird, here's a crazy cast for you: The main character, that being the 12-year-old who goes from the video arcade to hardcore skin flicks over the course of the narrative, is played by Dana Hill, who played the daughter in "European Vacation" (she died pretty young of diabetes, according to the imdb). Her mom is played by Melinda Dillion, the mom from not only "A Christmas Story," but also "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" (she's also in "Slap Shot," "Magnolia" and a number of other prestige flicks, as well as Tobe Hooper's not so prestigious "Spontaneous Combustion," with Brad Douriff). Mom's well-meaning boyfriend is played by Ronny Cox, of "Deliverance" and "Robocop" fame. The child pornographer, who's not just a businessman but a boner fide pedophile, is played, quite creepily, but the ubiquitous Richard Masur, a familiar face who's been in everything from John Carpenter's "The Thing," Alex Cox's "Walker," "Who'll Stop the Rain" and "Palindromes" to "Encino Man," "My Girl" and "Multiplicity," not to mention "Heaven's Gate," "The Believers" and the Michael Nesmith produced "Timerider- The Adventure of Lyle Swann" with Fred Ward and Tracey Walter. Perhaps best of all, Masur's creepy cronie is played by none other than Mr. David Hayward, a character actor from "Nashville" and Tobe Hooper's "Eaten Alive," best known to me as 'Chooch' from the 1979 van movie "Van Nuys Blvd."

"Fallen Angel" was directed by Robert Michael Lewis and written by Lew Hunter, both TV vets and frequent collaborators. After "Fallen Angel" in 1981, the duo reteamed in 1982 for another movie-of-the-week "Desperate Lives," about the slightly less confrontational but still pretty heavy subject of teenage drug abuse. "Desperate Lives" has a pretty serious cast as well, with Helen Hunt as a strung out teen who freaks after a PCP O.D., Diane Ladd as the mom, Diana Scarwid as the concerned teacher, "The Brood" and "Black Christmas" star Art Hindle as her boyfriend, also concerned and horror icon Tom Atkins as Hunt's dad. You know, these films are pretty campy twenty five plus years later, but it's hard to really fault them, as they aim to take a compassionate and understanding look at serious topics that are often dealt with in much more hysterical and hyperbolic terms. They give their characters, even Masur's child pornographin' pedophile, some depth, instead of just making him a cartoon villain, not that he comes of sympathetic, but rather he's played as kind of pathetic as opposed to one-dimensionally evil. Anyway, there's really no good reason to watch or not to watch "Fallen Angel" or "Desperate Lives" unless, you're down with the after school special scene, which I am, which is to say I really kind of enjoyed both, largely because of, and not despite, their various faults blah blah blah

Meanwhile, this rarely happens, but I actually saw a movie recently that I was convinced was going to be totally shitty but actually turned out to be kind of alright, no great masterpiece, but something worth your time if you have the time. The film in question is "Turistas," which I saw on more than a couple of "Worst of 2006" lists, suggesting that some film critics aren't watching bad enough movies. "Turistas" walks a fine line between being the kind of survival horror film like "Wolf Creek" and "Hostel"-lite torture porn (neither genre especially appeals to me), but it works well enough because it seems to have at least half a brain in its head. The characters aren't as totally repellent as those in the "Hostel" films, and the horror scenario is given some interesting sociopolitical undertones. The film takes place in Brazil, and the main villain kidnaps and harvests organs from white tourists as attack on America and Europe's colonial attitude towards underdeveloped nations- rich whites come to Brazil for organ transplants they would have to wait a long time for in their own countries, instead of getting native organs as expected, the villain murders other well-off white turistas for their spare parts. The film, which is directed by John Stockwell (co-star of John Carpenter's "Christine"), takes takes these ideas on postcolonialism a step further by having the villain actually turn out to be racist against Brazil's own non-urbanized indigenous people. So, basically, yeah, "Turistas" is totally something more than it looks like, not like a ton more, but enough to make it kinda interesting, to me anyway, and shocking unannoying...

So I guess that's it for now. Stay swell and I'll be back soon with more stuff about stuff, and other things too. Promise...