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...

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