Saturday, January 17, 2009

2008 part 8...

So, my band Chernobyl Skul! played our first show last night, and it seems like it went pretty well. It was certainly a lot of fun, and I think we were fairly successful in inflicting a sonic noise assault on the audience, but not in a full on aggressive way, like, with a little rhythm and melody and stuff. A good bunch of people came out (if you reading this and you were there, thanks!) despite the brutally frigid weather in New York this weekend, so that was pretty awesome too. Pics and video were taken, so I'll post some stuff or at least some links to it sometime soon. Meanwhile, hopefully Chernobyl Skul! will be playing again sometime in the near future, so stay stuned...

Meanwhile, the onward thrush to view and review as many of the films of 2008 as I can stomach soldiers on. Actually, I'm being a bit unfair, each batch of these films has held some treasures along with the pain, and this one is no different, so enjoy, or whatever. Not enjoy, but be enlightened, or whatever. Just read...

1. Jumper- It's kind of amazing that mainstream, big budgeted films can be this plotless and incoherent. When I was in film school, I had a screenwriting teacher, not to drop names but he was one of the writers of Friday the 13th part IV, and he was kind of a lunatic and a little bit of a moron, but he successfully personified your typical screenwriting professor and Hollywood type in general by railing on, with unmotivated hostility and aggression, about the fundamentals of screenwriting, the importance of story, of your typical three act structure, and I always sort of imagined that people who make big mainstream movies, who greenlight these sort of sci-fi action projects, would be of the same philosophy. But then I see something like "Jumper," which really has no story nor plot, nor any real action until more than halfway through, which wouldn't be an issue if there were something else going on, strong characterizations, good dialogue, but, no...Instead we have two of the most generic performers imaginable, Hayden Christianson and, uh, some girl (Rachel Bilson, who I intially mistook for the slightly less bland Rachel McAdams, not that it matters) and a central special effect (teleportation) that really isn't all that special. Like, it's cool that they have all these digital effects these days, but it's not that impressive when they're used to replicate something that could basically be achieved by stopping the camera and having the actor go out of the frame, pretty much the first thing anyone who has ever picked up a camera has ever figured out. Or whatever they did on the old Star Trek show, with the teleporter, which worked fine and probably costs millions of dollars less to put on film. It's not even that this movie is totally bad, just totally inconsequential, without any substance or relevance of any kind (no surprise, it comes from the director of "Swingers" and "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," the first of which at least had the courtesy to be intermittently amusing and the second of which was at least ridiculously bad in a moderately, marginally entertaining way [not really, but still better than this], though I admittedly enjoyed his first movie, the somewhat cheesy dark comedy "Getting In" with Andrew McCarthy and Dave Chappelle). Oh, and what is with filmmakers' need to put ridiculous things on Samuel L. Jackson's head? He has some insane wig or piece of headgear in pretty much ever movie he appears in. Here it's a bone white short haired wig, sort of like soul singer Sisquo of the "Thong Song" fame, though to be fair it was probably the most entertaining thing to be found hereabouts...

2. Drillbit Taylor- It may be a sign I'm getting progressively dumber, but I actually really liked this tweeny comedy with Owen Wilson as a homeless man who is hired by a bodyguard by a bunch of high school misfits. Then again, "Drillbit Taylor" is directed by Steven Brill, who also did "Heavy Weights" (1995), which I've always considered a pretty excellent young people's film (full disclosure- "Heavy Weights" was co-written by Brill and Judd Apatow, one of my most of hated of filmmakers, but who obviously hasn't always done everything wrong, and "Drillbit Taylor" is co-written by Seth Rogan, who I have mixed but obviously less acrimonious feelings about blah blah blah). Anyway, like "Heavy Weights," "Drillbit Taylor" is a good teen outcast comedy, and it works mainly because the kids are funny, the stuff with Owen Wilson is actually pretty extraneous, although he does exude a certain easy charm that makes it possible to recall him in more rewarding roles in Wes Anderson movies and...well, that's pretty much the only good movies he'd done, huh? But seriously, "Drillbit Taylor" is alright. The kids, Nate Hartley, Troy Gentile and David Dorfman, all play nerdy high school kids with a degree of believability and are appropriately awkward and funny. There is also a very talented array of adult performers with small roles in the film, including Ian Roberts and Matt Walsh of Upright Citizens Brigade, Danny McBride, Stephen Root, Beth Littleford, David Koechner, Josh Peck, Leslie Mann, Cedric Yarbrough of Reno 911, Rance Howard, Steve Bannos of Freaks & Geeks, Kevin Hart, Kevin Corrigan and, in on the film's funniest moments, Adam Baldwin in a scene poking fun at his breakout role in "My Bodygaurd." Yes, "Drillbit Taylor" is pretty lowbrow, but it's lowbrow fun and I think that critics who dumped on this missed the point that it's a reasonably not stupid movie for tweens, not a really stupid movie for adults...


3. The Happening- M. Night Shyamalan is a remarkably shit filmmaker. Sure, "the Sixth Sense" and "Ubreakable" were pretty good, not great but decent, but it's been a fairly aggressive drive downhill sense then, with "The Happening" winning out over "Lady in the Water" for the director's worst film (maybe the worst film of the year, if such a thing can truly be appraised). This has the distinction of being the director's first R-rated movie, which only really means it amps up the violence a bit, but it's of no particular consequence, since the tone and inevitable twist ending are exactly the same as any other of Shyamalan's films. At least it isn't as overwhelming a piece of Christian propaganda as "Signs," but it's still total shit, remarkably awful, poorly written with awkward dialogue and bland acting, no real story to speak of- the horror just begins and then it stops. And it's basically a rip off "Day of the Triffids," which isn't a bad thing unto itself, but I would have much rather been watching any one of the versions of that instead of this, which was bad, so bad, really fucking bad, irritating, pointless, stupid. I hope "the Happening's" failure and critical drubbing will remove this one-trick pony gimmick filmmaker from our public consciousness, or at least force him to actually try and make a different movie from the same thing he's been inflicting filmgoers with time and again. No, wait, I just want the first one. I want him to go away...

4. The Strangers- This fairly minimal, stripped-down horror flick by first time writer-director Bryan Bertino did pretty good business, got a few favorable reviews and seemed to resonate somewhat with horror fans, but I found it mostly pretty bland. "The Strangers" is sort of like the Hollywood version of a Michael Haneke movie, except it's not because we actually saw the Hollywood version of a Haneke movie this year, by Haneke, and it was much more interesting than this, but here we have like survival horror lite, with a young couple taunted by a trio of masked tormentors for no discernable reason beyond the allure of random violence. The action is slow to get going, which would be cool if that time was spent well. Instead, with get Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman mumbling in hushed tones about something about their relationship or whatever, it isn't really character development, it isn't really scene-setting, it's actually kind of hard to understand what either is saying half the time since they're whispering despite being alone with one another in an isolated house. But I guess that is Bertino's idea of being challenging or difficult, but it's more difficult to follow than it is to endure, though I give him credit for trying to be difficult using any cinematic tactic other than extreme violence ala torture porn. Problematically, though, he gives us almost nothing to work with, by the time the action starts, we don't really have a feel for the characters, the killers are literally faceless and the paramaters of their threat are totally undefined. The latter is actually fairly cool, up to a point, because we have no idea what's coming. In fact, there's a sense that once the villains actually capture their prey, they might just let them go rather than killing them, like they've been scaring them for the sake of scaring them. Except, when the moment comes, they just kill them. Like, we've been through a fairly unconventional scenario, and it ends up very conventionally, which is a let down. And there's a whole thing about the killer's masks that's kind of annoying. They wear masks the whole movie, and at the end they take them off, but we still don't see their faces. It's an interesting attempt at withholding cinematic relief, but it feels gimmicky. Also it's kind of stupid that the killers are played by actors and have stunt doubles, when they just could have been played by the stunt people. Oh, and the very ending is totally lame, a cheap shock gimmck that amounts to nothing. Blah.

5. Real Time- Writer-director Randall Cole gives us a slight but well-acted and generally pretty satisfying lo-fi drama comedy about a degenerate gambler (Jay Baruchel) and his last couple of hours with the hitman who's been hired to kill him (Randy Quaid). "Real Time" is a character piece, and fortunately the characters work, the acting is good. What could have been a trite, standard issue "quirky" indie comedy plays out pretty well. For sure, it could have been a play, but that's not a bad thing necessarily (check out "Bug," or many of David Mamet's screen adapatations). I really kind of liked it.

6. In Bruges- Finally, a movie that lives up to the hype. I kept hearing about how great this film was, how great it was, and I though, nah, movies that people think are good are never good. But "In Bruges" is really, really good. It's not perfect, but it's a funny, good-hearted dark comedy with a violent streak, propelled by some excellent performances by Brendan Gleeson, whom I've always really liked, and Colin Ferrell, who I up to this point have found fairly intolerable and intentionally avoided movies that he's in, but here he's good, kind of really good. It helps, of course, that the script, by writer-director Martin McDonough (a playwright, and again this has kind of a could-be-a-play feel, as it's mostly just two characters talking), just totally works. The characters are likable, but it's also a movie about regret and pain, and the emotional content is strong. Some of the extraneous elements, such as the coked-up dwarf ranting about the oncoming race war, maybe betray the more realistic characterizations and emotional aspects of the film, but they provide enough laughs to be passable. "In Bruges," man, pretty good film.

7. Saw V- One of the worst things about Saw V is that watching it necessitated also watching Saw IV. I've written about these films here before, about how much I dislike them, yet keep I watching them, as though somehow the next entry in this interminable series is going to provide something valuable that the others have so aggressively withheld. Hasn't happened yet. If anything, the entries in the Saw series have become progressively more incoherent and pointless, with unintelligible dollops of overwrought plot histrionics intercut with the only real attraction- elaborate scene of excessive violence. Well, not excessive, the ethos of the series is such that no act of violence is in excess, but very extreme violence, which is something I obviously don't mind in better movies. Tokyo Gore Police is full of insane violence, but it works because the movie has like characters and stuff, here we have an interchangeable battery of puffy faced middle-aged ex-TV performers looking all sweaty and serious and stuff. Oh, and Julie Benz, who I do like a lot, and between this, "Punisher War Zone," "Rambo" and her role on "Dexter," has been in probably the most violent movies and TV of the year. I'd like to think it's maybe some kinky violence fetish on her part, but it's probably something more mundane, like these are the parts she was offered, and so she took them, but it's interesting that one actor would be in so much violent media in one year, and of such varying quality as well. Anyway, Saw V totally fucking sucks, and there's no reason to watch it, unless you're really a glutton for punishment, which I guess I am, cuz I watched it, but I definitely didn't enjoy it. But whatever.

8. Smart People- First-time filmmaker Noam Murro's "Smart People" is a pinnacle of adequate, unremarkable filmmaking. From a script by Mark Poirier, it's bland but not bad, smart but not as smart as the titular smart people. It's paced and deliberate in a watchable way, but it's still got a bit of Hollywood going on, there's got to be kind of neat, happy ending, y'know it's got a bit of the "Little Miss Sunshine" presciousness syndrome. Still, "Smart People" has a good dry wit, it is genuinely intelligent, and the cast (Dennis Quaid, Ellen Page, Sarah Jessica Harper, Thomas Hayden Church, Ashton Holmes, Camille Mana) is pretty great. How come when someone who has always been kind of appealing, and not a maniac, like Dennis Quaid does some genuinely interesting films like this and "American Dreamz," no one really talks about the triumphant ressurection of Dennis Quaid, but a shitty actor who disappeared because he's shitty, and a maniac, like Mickey Rourke gets the fanfare rolled out for him for "the Wrestler." That's kind of bullshit. Like, Mickey Rourke, John Travolta, there's a reason why these actors went away and needed to make a comeback- they made lots of shitty movies and bad career choices, and were sort of awful in their personal lives, aggressively so. Dennis Quaid is a good actor who has mostly done interesting or at least passable films and never made much of a splash personally, and his star should be shining brighter than it does. And he's got range, to go from the dimwitted Bush clone in "American Dreamz" to the self-hating college professor intellectual in this. Film critics are fucking stupid. Oh, and that Ellen Page, I don't mean to be crude, but I find her very attractive. Y'know, sexually.

9. The Foot Fist Way- This is another film which came with some hype, and actually delivers. It's no surprise that Will Ferrell and Adam McKay were behind the release of this indie from filmmaker Jody Hill, since it's basically a lower-key version of the type of idiot humor of "Talladega Nights" or "Anchorman," you've got a clueless, yet aggressive character who is monomaniaclly obsessed with their chosen profession, and most of the humor emerges out of that character's social retardation. Danny McBride (also a co-writer) as Tae Kwon Do instructor Fred Simmons, is pretty much perfect. He's a self-deluded loser and an asshole, but basically good hearted (ala Ferrell in many of his films), and McBride is a truly captivating comedic performer (he was also in "Pineapple Express" and "Drillbit Taylor" this year, and brought something welcome to both). It's cool to see an actor basically the same age as me who isn't especially good-looking doing comedy, since it seems like too often 30-ish comedians have to be good looking these days, it's kind of lame, it's sort of antithetical to the spirit of comedy, maybe, something, whatever...Anyway, I really like Danny McBride, and I really enjoyed the "Foot Fist Way." It's comedy of discomfort done with a certain aggressive, unflinching abandon, and even when it falters, it's still pretty watchable. And there's emotional resonance too. This is a good film and I'm looking forward to seeing more of McBride and Hill and what they come up with next, or something...

10. Alien Raiders- I only watched "Alien Raiders" a few days ago and I can't remember anything about it, so I'm going to go ahead and say it was pretty bad. Maybe I need to watch it again. As far as I remember, it was sort of like an extended version of that scene in John Carpenter's "the Thing" where they test everybody to see who's an alien and who isn't, set in a supermarket, with cops and robbers. Mathew St. Patrick, the guy who played Michael Hall's boyfriend on "Six Feet Under," is one of the stars. There's lots of talking. Seriously, that's all I remember...

More to come. Thanks again to anyone who supported Chernobyl Skul!

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