Friday, January 2, 2009

2008 part 5...

Trudging along with the films of 2008. I'd like to get to a hundred reviews on this, but I don't know if I have the stamina. I had to take a break today after slogging through some particularly dreary straight-to-video dreck to watch something in black & white ("Rogue Cop" by Robert Taylor, Janet Leigh, Anne Francis, and George Raft, and "the Murder Man," with Spencer Tracy and a young Jimmy Stewart, both films I liked alot). Meanwhile, hope everybody had a good New Year's. Mine was mellow, trekked out Brooklyn to hang with some friends, froze our asses off for a while waiting for some fireworks that never happened (I knew they wouldn't, but my friend insisted), saw that funny sign I posted and watched (for about the ten billionth time) "Let's Go to Prison" (still pretty hilarious the ten billionth time around). Being that I don't drink, I'm not especially motivated to leave my house on NYE, but I'm glad I did, since it was chill and fun. I hope that's a portent of things to come in 2009, spending quality time with good people and not feeling uncomfortable. Again, hope all of yours were as equally pleasant and nontraumatic.
Anyway, back to the films...

1. The Signal- Probably my favorite horror film of 2008, possibly my favorite film of the year. Story wise, the modestly budgeted indie takes cues from Cronenberg ("Shivers," "Rabid," "Videodrome") and Romero (particularly "The Crazies"- in fact the tagline for "The Signal"- "Do you have The Crazy?"- made me wonder if this isn't what became of the announced remake of Romero's film, although that still seems to be coming out, so I guess not), but manages a highly original, creative approach. A story with a relatively broad scope- people driven insane by a mysterious signal broadcast over TVs- is portrayed on a micro scale, through three vingettes depicting the lives of several individuals affected by the crisis. That we are unsure exactly who is infected and who isn't often leads to stretches of mordant, absurd humor, punctuated by moments of surprising, brutal violence. In some sequences, we become aware that more or less everyone we have been watching is infected, as we become privy to their hallucinations and delusions, the effect is quite disorienting, unnerving. Being a fairly low-budget, character driven movie, writer-directors David Brucker, Dan Bush and Jacob Gentry are more reliant on their actors instead of special effects spectacles, and fortunately the cast, even those playing the the infected, are appealing, often oddly so. Add to that a sense of urgency and intimacy coming from the well-concieved use of mostly handheld (this is shot on digital video and HD) camerawork, and "the Signal" is ultimately a very powerful piece of cinema. I'm usually skeptical when I'm told a movie harkens back to the horror heyday of the 1970s, and although I wasn't told that about this one, it actually does, particularly the intelligent, apocalyptic, social relevant cinema of afforementioned directors like Cronenberg and Romero (the opening credits here, after a gore sequence designed to fool us into believing we are watching some kind of bargain basement torture porn as opposed to the "real movie" we are actually about to see, intentionally recalls 70s drive-in and grindhouse-type movies in a welcomed way). Anyway, as far as recent horror goes, I can't really overstate my admiration of this on, can't wait to see what these guys do next.

2. Forgetting Sarah Marshall- As I've written with boring frequency, I really dislike the films of Judd Apatow. Even when he manages to capture a sense of something "real" in his cinema, or when he manages to be funny, there's something fundamentally joyless and unpleasant about his movies. The Apatow-produced "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," directed by Nicholas Stoller, manages to capture that joylessness without any of the reality. This is basically just your standard stupid Hollywood romantic comedy punched up with full frontal male nudity and cameos by Paul Rudd and Jonah Hill. But it strikes all the same rote notes as one might expect. Does anyone still think it's funny to see a montage of a guy crying uncontrollably after a breakup? Is that, like, still supposed to be a clever thing? Were that this film simply unfunny might be one thing, but there's something kind of insideous about it as well. Somewhere, buried deep inside the rot, there's a sense of something kind of different, the idea that this could be about a girl and a guy who break up because their relationship isn't working, she moves on to someone else who seems kind of decent, and after a period of soul-searching, he finds someone else as well. But, no, the ex (Kristen Bell as the titual Sarah Marshall, around the time of "Veronica Mars" I'd be saying she deserved better movies than this, now I'm beginning to wonder), has to be ultimately villified, in fact her final scene in the movie has the male lead (Jason Segel, who around the time of "Freaks and Geeks" I would have said deserved better movies than this, but now I almost certainly sure he doesn't, given that he also wrote this piece of shit), calling her a "demon," with that being the end of her story until a closing credits gag mocking her further. And the same goes for the character playing her new boyfriend, he seems like actually a decent guy at first, but of course has to ultimately be portrayed as a self-centered asshole. You know, in real life, we all may hate our exes a little, or hate them for a time after breaking up, but for the most part, they're all just people like anybody, maybe the wrong people for us, but generall not demons or devils. People, healthy people, just move on, live their lives, whatever. But in movie world, the only kind of romance that seems to be able to exist is "true love," true, pure, romantic love like out of a fairytale, and anybody who doesn't fit into that equation is somehow dysfunctional or evil. In reality, the Jason Segel and Kristen Bell characters in this film are kind of a perfect match, they're both pretty bland and self-centered, but apparently, in Apatow land, bland and self-centered is fine for guys and evil for women, but fucking whatever, fuck this movie, fuck the people who made it, fuck everybody involved in it except for Paul Rudd, who I still like. For now.

3. Finding Amanda- If you ever watched "Wargames" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and were like, yeah, this is good, but what I'd really like to see is Matthew Broderick playing an alcoholic, gambling addicted self-delusional asshole loser, then there's probably something really wrong with you, but now you have a movie that answers the question. And you know what it's like? Fucking awful. Broderick, a failed TV comedy writer, goes to Las Vegas to find his neice, Amanda (Brittany Snow, also in the awful "Prom Night" remake), who has become a prostitute, and take her to rehab, in the hopes that doing so will help save his failing marriage (to Maura Tierney, of "Newsradio" and "ER," who deserves to be in better movies). There are some interesting things to be found here, about addiction and self-delusion, but they're surrounded by what's ultimately a bland, terminally miscast movie. Like the character of Amanda herself, who puts on a cheery veneer despite blowing guys for money and living with a cartoonishly disinterested, self-involved boyfriend, "Finding Amanda" is a self-deluded film, wanting to be some kind of gritty expose of the underbelly of society, and how close the polite everyday world is to giving way to addiction and prostitution and whatever, but in reality it has all the guts of your average romantic comedy, which I'd much rather see Matthew Broderick in anyway, since apparently for the best decade or so he's all but completely sworn off being in any actual good movies anymore.

4. The House Bunny- There's not a whole lot to say about "the House Bunny", it's generally pretty unfunny and bleak for a comedy. If there's anything more dismal than a Judd Apatow production, it's an Adam Sandler production, but this film lacks the spirit of even your average Rob Schneider vehicle, or something like "Grandma's Boy," which at least had some guts. Anna Faris plays a Playboy bunny who thinks she's exiled from the Playboy mansion after she turns 27. See, already I don't give a fuck, though I guess it's kind of ironic that this actually seems to have happened to Hugh Hefner's real girlfriends from "the Girls Next Door." Hefner and all his ladies play themselves, briefly and badly, making this basically a 90-minute ad for "Playboy." Had they gone with a fiction publication and used actors instead, there might have been some room for parody of Playboy-type culture, but the level of humor here is more like Farris flailing her arms around and speaking in funny voices. In a nutshell, it's a movie about how women need to change to meet men. Farris become the house mother of a bunch of misfit sorority girls, who of course are totally cute even if they're geeky and probably wouldn't have any trouble finding boyfriends if they wanted to, but also aren't really the kind of young women who would join a sorority anyway, even the "Revenge of the Nerds"-style one here, so what's the point of this movie, actually? Oh yeah, all unique, interesting individuals need to take lessons from a Playboy Bunny to learn how to be more appealing to men, except they'll eventually become mean, superficial bitches, before realizing that they only need to sacrifice SOME of their individuality to meet men. Farris' character, meanwhile, learns how to act like slightly less of a bimbo, in order to meet men. The men in the film, meanwhile, don't have to change at all. Some of the young actresses in the sorority, particularly Emma Stone and Kat Dennings, are quite good, which makes their Ally Sheedy in the "Breakfast Club" like transformation all the more unpleasant, since they're basically more appealing at the beginning of the movie, not that a young woman defining her identity should be done on the basis of appeal, as the thesis of the film seems to state. Whatever, like alot of stupid movies, there's much that could be forgiven about this one if it were actually funny, which it isn't, not in the least, so fuck it.

5. Be Kind Rewind- And here's another dreary, overly sentimental, unfunny comedy...I've probably hammered these points to death, but the trends I hate in current cinema are Judd Apatow-style frat comedies, torture porn and cutsey, self-impressed ultrapostmodern metacomedies ala Charlie Kaufman, Spike Jonez and the director of this film, Michel Gondry. Despite the clever premise, two video store clerks erase all the tapes in their store, so they start making their own versions of the movies, "Be Kind Rewind" is a remarkably standard film, remarkably average. Things only pick up when we're watching the characters' remakes, which are admittedly pretty entertaining, but the story and film around them, even the characters themselves, are all pretty trite. Mos Def, as the lead, is good, as is Melonie Diaz (also in "Hamlet 2"), but Jack Black just does this Jack Black thing, which is annoying, and there's really not a whole lot else going on. Gondry reveals a foreigner's romanticized, not necessarily negatively stereotyped but still stereotyped, notion of race and urban living in America. It's hard to quite put a finger on what the root of this is, but I can't help but feeling there's something kind of racist deeply engrained in this film. That said, and even though I didn't really like Black's performance, the characters played by Mos Def and Jack Black do have a nice relationship that manages to avoid some of the stereotypes typically found in black-white relationships portrayed in film, so score one point for "Be Kind Rewind" (score one more point for the casting of August Darnell aka Kid Creole, and check out his comp "Going Places," featuring songs he played on or produced between 1976 and 1983, released in 2008 from Strut Records, it's awesome), but ultimately there's just not much here. Gondry doesn't even both with an ending for the film, when there are several storylines that could use, if not closure, some form of denoument, rather the film just ends when its' cleverness seems to have petered out, confirming my suspicion that Gondry doesn't really give a fuck about the movie he's making, just the concept and cool things he can slip in there. Kinda lame.

6. Dance of the Dead- I'd heard good things about this modestly budgeted horror comedy, and it's above average for sure, but it's also been greatly overhyped. I suspect people have responded to it because, unlike many new horror movies, especially those focusing on teens, and those coming out direct-to-DVD, it doesn't toally suck and isn't completely idiotic. That said, there's nothing really revolutionary here. The humor is mostly kind of slapstick but doesn't reach the hilarious excess of something like Peter Jackson's "Dead Alive," and there's not much depth or social commentary to be found, ala George Romero's zombie films. No, this is just a highly adequate movie, a passable time killer. Y'know, a movie like this should be the norm, it should be the average, and it only really stands out because so much of the competition is so weak. So, yeah, watch it, but don't expect "Eyes Without a Face" here or anything.

7. Seed- Poor Michael Pere, it's been a long couple of decades since "Eddie & the Cruisers" and "Streets of Fire" (or "the Greastest American Hero," for that matter). I'd like to think he chose this movie over being in some gay porn or something. Actually, it's pretty generous calling this a movie at all. Yes, it's filmed moving pictures purporting to tell some kind of narrative, but it approaches that with such a lack of intelligence or ever the most basic competence or sense of what's cinematic. Scenes are just interspersed in a haphazard manner, punctuated by genuinely pretty disgusting torture porn violence. Just don't watch it. And if you need a reason not to watch it, aside from it just being horrible and idiotic, the opening scene features some really brutal real footage of foxes being tortured and killed. It has nothing to do with the rest of the movie, and is just there for cheap, really the cheapest possible, shock value. Just don't watch it.

8. Towelhead- Were the protagonist of Alan Ball's "Towelhead" not half-Lebanese, and if the film did not take place during the first Gulf War, then I suspect there would be little to mention about this movie, which is basically a hypersexualized coming-of-age drama. As on Ball's "True Blood" and the later, more unwatchable seasons of "Six Feet Under," every character in "Towelhead" is almost entirely motivated by their prurient (because, indeed, sex here is not a natural happening, nor a physical expression of love, affection or even simple lust and attraction, but an all-consuming compulsion) sexual desire, except perhaps the main character's father (played by Peter Macdissi, one of a number of good actors wasted here), who seems motivated entirely by being the film's villain, as all of his actions seem to come out of the blue (within minutes of his introduction, he's slapped his daughter Jasira [Summer Bishil] for no apparent reason, other than that's what abusive, repressive parents do in movies like this), out of the most hostile and judgemental place possible, except when it suits the story for him not to be (and even his character is show to have a healthy sexual appetite). I think what bothers me the most about Ball's production is that they seem to reveal, unintentionally, more about him and his compulsions than they do about the subjects they purport to examine. Race, though mentioned frequently, is merey a prop in this film, in fact one might view it as a subject that's exploited in the name of stirring up some press for a fairly typical film about a young woman's sexual awakening. And, as in "Be Kind Rewind," there's no real ending. You know, I don't demand a definite narrative conclusion, nor do I expect every loose end to be neatly resolved, that's not the way it works in real life, and it's not the way it should be in the movies. And sometimes I think it's fine, even very powerful, for a movie to end suddenly, on an ambiguous note. But "Towelhead," like "Be Kind Rewind," just seems to peter out, basically just ending at the hour and forty minute mark, as opposed to when some natural point of conclusion. Filmmakers, end your movies. Or if you have that little going on that you feel that you can just cut off at any point, don't make them. Fuck off and let someone with something to say, or at least a story to tell, take over. Seriously, Alan Ball, fuck off. You totally suck. And, readers, if you're really looking for a unique, uncompromising coming-of-age film about sex and youth and young women, try Catherine Breillat's "Fat Girl." Or, y'know, porn, which is at least more honest about its' sexual intentions than "Towelhead" is.

9. Werewolf in a Woman's Prison- With the title "Werewolf in a Woman's Prison," this movie makes some pretty big promises, and fortunately it's smuttier and funnier than most cheap ass straight-to-DVD movies I've seen this year, but it's still pretty cheesy and stupid, and not totally in an entertaining way. If you had to chose between this and, say, "Ninja Cheerleaders," "Zombie Strippers" or "The Cook," this is definitely the gutsiest (or at least titsiest and goriest) of the bottom-of-the-barrell bunch, and it does have a werewolf in a woman's prison, so that's something. Not quite enough, but something...

10. Zombie Strippers- Speaking of porn, and movies that name a horror movie element and an exploitation movie element involving women in their title, there's "Zombie Strippers," a cheap-ass horror comedy almost exclusively notable for starring pornstar Jenna Jameson. This, in a nutshell, is a movie about strippers who turn into zombies, and thus should be at least kind of entertaining, but it really isn't. Some attempts at social parody are marred by inconsistencies in tone and production value, particularly in regards to some scenes involving a group of commandos, which are just super chintzy, and bring the rest of the film down. Not that the rest of the movie is great, but without these especially threadbare elements, at least it could have been what it was, beginning to end, as was the more entertaining "Werewolf in a Woman's Prison." Jameson, to her credit, is pretty good at playing a dead eyed sex machine...

Y'know, it feels kind of icky disliking so many movies at the same time, but whatever, alot of these films are just pretty lousy. Can I make it through another five entries of this stuff, and how many more weeks of movie watching? Time will tell, or something. Dug that "Signal," though.
More to come. Meanwhile, if you agree with my reviews, or especially if you don't, or if you just want to say "I care," why not leave a comment?

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