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...
26 minutes ago