More movies from 2008. Bored yet? Am I? I don't even know anymore. Read and tell all your friends...
1. Appaloosa- I sort of knew in advance that I would like this film. Or at least, I felt like it would have to work extra hard for me not to like it. So, unsurprisingly, I really liked it. Director-star Ed Harris presents a stripped down, unmelodramatic, demystified and very human western. At the core of the film is the relationship between Marshall Virgil Cole and his deputy Everett Hitch, masterfully played by Harris and Viggo Moretenson as characters who not only defy western stereotypes (they are stoic cowboys, but also have emotions) but have this amazingly believable partnership, a hetereosexual male marriage with Mortenson (who refers to himself as "being with" Harris in the same breath as referring to the marhsall's girlfriend as "being with" him) literally finishing Harris' sentences for him. It's just great acting, and Harris' stylish but somewhat laid-back directing style gives it room to resonate. Plus you've got Jeremy Irons, Timothy Spall, Lance Henriksen and a decent Renee Zelwegger in the supporting roles. "Appaloosa" is I guess what you'd call a postmodern western in that it goes against some of the standard tropes of the genre, insomuch as, aside from a few scenes, it isn't especially violent, nor is it about violence, or vengeance, though it does touch on honor and duty, it's still ultimately a film about relationships, and it succeeds pretty perfectly in binding that the western trappings. And not so far beneath the surface, but not exactly at the forefront, a critique of power, both figurative and literal, in that who controls the (literal) power (electricity, copper) has the (symbolic) power, which obviously has some political resonance these days, so in a larger sense, you have a film about maintaining humanity in the face of power and corruption, or something, like, how do you power that is essentially antihumanistic (captialism) without losing your own humanity? Because this is a film with a lot of humanity. I dunno, it was pretty super terrific. That Viggo Mortenson can really act.
2. Midnight Meat Train- This Clive Barker-based horror film, from Japanese filmmaker Ryuhei Kitamura (Godzilla- Final Wars), was supposed to get a theatrical release but wound up being released directly to DVD by Lion's Gate. Some of what I read about this seemed to view the decision with some kind of outrage, that it was a slight against the horror genre, or a personal vendetta against the film itself. Whatever the truth is, I can't help but believe that some of the decision has to do with how much "the Midnight Meat Train" sucks. It's pointless and incoherent and full of obnoxiously fast paced, CGI-manipulated editing. The main character isn't exactly unsympathetic, but he's impossible to find that compelling either, it's just not that well-written a part (or that well-written a movie), and weasel-faced star Bradley Cooper (who has the WASP-iest fucking name ever, "Hi, I'm Bradley Cooper, would you care for some chardonay? Does this ascot go with my dickey?") is far too bland and whiny to rise above the weak material. I think it's really important in horror films for the viewer to have something to grasp onto, be it a compelling or sympathetic main character, or some kind of interesting set up for the threat they're facing that gives it some extra dimension or something the viewer can relate to their own fears, but "Midnight Meat Train" has neither and should consider itself lucky for being released at all.
3. 18 Year Old Virgin- Would you blame me for not expecting much out of a low-budget, direct-to-DVD teen sex comedy with a stupid title? Would you believe me if I said it was actually kind of good? Teetering on the edge between something you'd see late at night of Cinemax (possibly with "National Lampoon's" preceeding the title) and something more unique, a kind of aggressively sexualized indie about teen sexuality, "the 18 Year Old Virgin" uncomfortably mixes cheap gross-out gags with some degree of insight. To be fair, the acting and staging, and really alot of the dialogue, falls on the Skinemax side of things, but there's just a certain sense of something that elevates the films above, well, above itself. Maybe it's that the director, Tamara Olson, and the screenwriter, Naomi Slefman, are women. Maybe it's the spunkiness of star Olivia Alaina May, as a recent high school graduate intent on losing her virginity over the course of a night. Maybe it's the uniqueness of seeing a movie about a teenage girl's sexuality that's still pretty smut-minded and full of nudity and gross gags, but ultimately very sex positive, and nowhere nearly as schmatlzy as its' namesake "the 40 Year Old Virgin." It's not great, but it's something, which I guess is better than, y'know, nothing.
4. Seven Pounds- So, this was like everybody's top pick for worst movie of the year, but I actually kind of liked it. I can understand what critics reacted to so negatively in it, there are certainly many of the hallmarks of the classic "Bad Movie" to be found in "Seven Pounds." You've got a confusing plot, bizarre character motivations, terminal illness and Will Smith's almost inexplicable suicide-by-jellyfish. But that's the thing, "Seven Pounds" is kind of bizarre and consistently pretty fascinating, and unlike many films these days, it's actually about something, and manages to put out some ideas without having the characters just express their motivations repeatedly in every scene, over and over again (for three plus hours in "the Dark Knight"). It's definitely flawed, it's not some kind of unsung masterpiece, but it is a strange and compelling film, and I gotta say I liked Will Smith in it. I can definitely see myself watching this again, maybe more than once, to further get at what I liked about it.
5. Splinter- More bland horror from the seemingly endless well of films about young couples stranded out in the middle of nowhere with something threatening them. "Splinter" has nothing that makes it unique. The characters are boring, there's no discernable sense of humor, the threat is unusual but also unexplained, which would be okay if we actually cared about the characters, since there'd be some sense of identification with people in a confusing situation beyond their control, but since the characters are so ill-defined, it's us, the viewers, who are in a confusing (albiet more boring than threatening situation) situation that's beyond our control (well, you could turn the movie off, I guess, but I like to try and see these kinds of things through til the end), with the added unpleasantness of sharing the situation with really uninteresting people (the characters on screen, not your viewing companion, unless you have boring friends). Anyway, "Splinter" maganes to be completely lacking in both horror and fun, so, y'know, that's pretty bad.
6. Bolt- The first ten minutes of this Disney CGI-animated film are an exhiliarting and genuinely funny and involving parody of Matrix-style action movies, executed with enourmous flair and style, successfully walking the fine line between parodying something and cleverly mimicking the best aspects of it (at least visually). Once the actual story of "Bolt" takes over, things are less interesting. No awful, just, y'know, why save all the fun stuff for the parody, if you've got the chops to pull off such engaging digital filmmaking, let it run through the whole movie. Still, this is a good natured family film and I enjoyed its' general lack of cynicism. I don't generally like all-CGI movies, I just have a hard time getting into them. Aside from "Bee Movie," which I really liked, and "Finding Nemo," which I didn't love but enjoyed (Albert Brooks is in it), this is probably the best I've seen. It doesn't have the icky Ayn Randian-fascism of "the Incredibles," nor whatever I'd find in those icky-looking Shrek movies if I could be bothered to watch them. Its just a good movie for kids, that adults can enjoy somewhat as well, which is not a bad thing. I even didn't the presence (voice only, at least) of John Travolta, who generally I think sucks. And I guess I can understand why kids like that Miley Cyrus so much, she's pretty fun (again, voice only) as the owner of the titular canine. Anyway, not a bad film, and that opening is pretty wonderful.
7. Frontier(s)- This French film is essentially just a clone of American torture porn ala "Hostel" and "Saw." The situation should be somewhat horrifying, a group of (I think) Franco-Algerian thieves escapes Paris during the riots (I assume this referenced the riots in the Paris suburbs a few years back) and find themselves stranded out in the middle of nowhere with a group of neo-Nazis tormenting them, but I think a combination a bad acting and uninteresting filmmaking robs "Frontier(s)" of any real impact. The situation was just so familiar, with the kids winding up in a run down, dirty hotel run by vaugley menacing people, who of course turn out to be killers. It's got the same dingy lighting, the same endless scenes of the female lead running through the muck, screaming, it's got the same everything. Perhaps there's some novelty, because it's French, but really, it did nothing for me. There are some obvious exceptions ("Eyes Without a Face,"Trouble Every Day") but in the broader sense, I don't think the French do horror films (or action films) as well as they do dramas, crime films and mysteries. "Frontier(s)" has some genuinely bad acting, particularly by the lead, who seems in her final scenes to be specifically mimicking a concentration camp victim, which is, like, pretty fucked up, because this film is basically just using Nazis for shock value, and using the Holocaust as a cheap gimmick, it doesn't really comment on anything or refer to anything, it's just there for the visual punch, and it's a pretty weak punch anyway. So, yeah, "Frontier(s)" sucks.
8. Max Payne- The former Marky Mark stars in this video game adaptation which, like most video game adaptations, fails to graft a reasonably involving plot or fleshed out characters on the thin frame of digitized action. Like many of these films, it also seems to revel in its' video game-ness, and like many of these films it fails to provide nearly as much entertainment as the same amount of time spent playing a really good video game.
9. Fashion Victim- "Fashion Victim" is the latest in a seemingly unending line of cheap serial killer biopics. In the past decade, we've seen "Ed Gein," "Ted Bundy," "Dahmer," "Gacy," "Karla," a remake of "the Boston Strangler," at least two films about the Hillside Stranglers, "Starkweather," "Kemper," two films about the Zodiac killer, a couple movies about the Green River Killer, a couple about the BTK killer and that movie where Corin Nemec from Parker Lewis Can't Lose plays Richard Speck...certainly more films than have been made chronicling the experiences of American presidents, or really any other true life segment of the population, as far as I know. Some of these films are pretty good, I'd highly recommend "Dahmer," and "Gacy" has its' merits. Most of them are pretty bad, cheap and exploitative, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but when filmmakers are exploiting the actual victims of actual crimes, there's something really troubling about it. "Fashion Victim," about Andrew Cunnanan, the killer who counted designer Gianni Versace among his victims, is not good, but it's not particularly exploitative either, in large part because it's so bland, which is no mean feat, since the lurid elements are certainly there to be exploited. But, no, this is a super-cheap, poorly made, extremely flat retelling of Cunnanan's killing spree, with no real insights into his character (it's mentioned that his parents were members of a doomsday cult, but his childhood is never really explored), into the nature of his crimes, his obsession with fame...It's just not there.
10. Red- Brian Cox is kind of amazing in this small, serious film (co-directed by Lucky McKee, who did "May," one of my faves), as a widower who seeks justice after some teenagers kill his beloved pet dog, Red. There are many virtues to "Red," which seems to be gaining the most notice among horror fans because of McKee and costar Robert Englund (also Ashley Laurence of "Hellraiser," and Cox of course was the original Hannibal Lecter in Michael Mann's "Manhunter"), but it's more of a drama, and fairly low-key for a revenge film. Actually, it's only marginally a revenge film, Cox's character's quest really is for justice, at the very least the acknowledgement of wrongdoing, and the situation only escelates because of the teen (Noel Fisher) and his redneck-with-money (do people still use the term nouveau riche? Or new money?) dad (Tom Sizemore). The story is pretty compelling, but it's really Cox who is the reason to watch this, he carries himself with a very powerful, quiet dignity, softspoken but somewhat hard, yet caring, this is totally his film (fortunately, he's in pretty much every scene). Which isn't to say it's not a good film, that the script (based on a book by Jack Ketchum, who seems to specialize in these slightly Stephen King-esque New England brutality dramas, ala "The Lost," a bad film (produced by McKee) and "the Girl Next Door," a very good and extremely horrifying film) isn't good, or that the supporting cast isn't good (it also includes Kim Dickens, of "the Zero Effect," who I've always really liked alot, Amanda Plummer, Kyle Gallner of "Veronica Mars" and Richard Riehele of "Office Space"), but for the most part, all you really notice is Cox (which sounds kind of dirty if you read it aloud). I wish I had a more in-depth analysis, and maybe in time it will come to me, but I guess some movies rest on the talent of their lead actors, and this one certainly succeeds because of it. In an interview on the DVD, Cox (who seems pretty great out-of-character as well) refers to McKee as the "original director," so I wonder if he wasn't fired or left the project for some reason, really some of it isn't as striking, visually or otherwise, as he previous films, though maybe it's just an attempt at a more straightforward visual style to accentuate the straightforwardness of the story, and of Cox's character. Anyway, "Red" is totally alright, maybe one of my favorite flicks of last year, or whatever.
That's it for now. More to come. I'm still feeling a little burnt out on this whole endeavor, yet feel compelled to continue on with it. Why? Why not? Why the fuck not?