Thursday, December 31, 2009

TOP 10 FILMS OF '09

I had a real hard time liking a lot of the dreck that came out this year (especially compared to last year...that summer had Dark Knight, Step Brothers, Iron Man, Tropic Thunder, and Hellboy 2), but these are the 10 movies I was most grateful for in 2009.

10. Black Dynamite
With countless spoof movies out there, including several already on the Blaxploitation genre, it took a lot of balls for Michael Jai White to make this his passion project and write and star in it as the titular character; after all, does anyone who doesn't watch the Disney Channel tell me where Eddie Griffin is right now? But he knew exactly the right tone to keep this modern and fresh, and the utter ludicrousness of the plot is almost as funny as the actors when they try and deliver their dialogue straight. Jai White and his female lead, Salli Richardson, are well versed in straight cinema, and are not Jennifer Coolidge and Tony Cox; they know what they're doing. The cameos, special effects, costumes, editing, everything contributes to the clear, distinct style of the film, doing what many have tried to do and failed; create a spoof/homage with enough substance to retain replay value.
9. TIE: A Serious Man/Whatever Works
Let's say, theoretically, you and your brother sweep the Oscars. After years of unjust neglect by Hollywood, the Academy picks up on your brand of genius, and you are catapulted into stardom and universal respect. For your next film, what would you do? You would probably not, for example, make a film with no recognizable actors (save for a prolific character actor) about a nebbish Jewish man in the 60s whose life sucks really fucking hard. And that is why you (and your brother) are not the Coens. This movie was hilarious, unpredictable, and, above all, unexpected; it's humor and self-containment are shockingly strong, their best universe since The Big Lebowski. The other truly hilarious, low-key comedy of this year was the funnier, if less cohesive Whatever Works. Utilizing his native New York, gratefully, and the comic talents of Larry David, Woody Allen was able to make his funniest, most mature comedy since Deconstructing Harry. Through LD's Boris Yelnikoff, Woody both mocks and celebrates the bohemian activities that he used to celebrate in his films; Evan Rachel Wood's Melodie is so dumb, open-minded, and naiive, that she is almost as sad as she is charming and funny. The film, like A Serious Man, shows that without star power, high concepts, and exotic locales, these brilliant filmmakers can still tap into the human spirit, and unravel what makes us all tick. More than anything, these films are a strong reassurance that these genius bastards still have the ability to create amazingly original, strong, and memorable works, if only every few movies or so.
8. TIE: Crank 2/Land of the Lost
Insanity was abundant at the cinemas this year; only in 2009 could movies like Jennifer's Body, Gamer, or Year One be released. However, the true apex of cinematic madness was contained in these two films. Crank 2 took an idea that couldn't outlast one film, and stretched it out over another 90 minutes of the most glouriously insane, retarded bullshit that the 2 directors could possibly imagine, knowing they could film it on their pro-sumer cameras and post the rest. This takes every precious piece of logic and legitimacy that the first film contained and throws it out the window, elevating the action to that of a majestic cartoon (the Godzilla fight sequence is up there w/ Inglourious's basement scene as my favorite of '09), bringing in Corey Haim and Bai Ling as supporting players, and letting Statham flip the camera the bird while burning alive, among other things. Land of the Lost, on the other hand, is a stoner comedy made for children, and it shows. The characters have no semblance of seriousness, and Will Ferrell's scientist character knows just enough to keep the film from flying off the rails (which it does, thankfully, by the end). Danny McBride knows exactly how to treat this material, and captures a great duality between a wide-eyed child and a smarmy, hickish bastard. The gags, backed up by production design by the master Bo Welsch, are as high-concept as some of the ridiculous works of the 90s, such as The Flintstones and The Addams Family (similar TV adaptations). And the spirit of the film is so loose, so entertaining, and so undeniably goofy that I find it making my rewatch list much more often than some other films on this list.
7. The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
Gilliam takes his dick (fully erect for the first time in a decade), plops it in the table, and reminds you how fucking big it really is. Fans of Time Bandits, Brazil, and, especially, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen are given another film to treasure and marvel over, and with more mature subject matter. The story and performances here are heartbreaking; Christopher Plummer's aged mystic is drunk and confused, Heath Ledger's quick-thinking barker character is running from his past, and Lily Cole is a disillusioned, rebellious child, trapped by forces she doesn't understand. The whole thing stands up, but when the characters enter the Imaginarium, it is like the Brazil dream sequences in the sense that another world truly opens up. Gilliam uses CGI better than James Cameron (in my opinion) in creating amazingly diverse, stimulating imagery that, shockingly above all else, retains perfect fidelity to the character work elsewhere (fuck yourself Avatar). Wonderful fantasy for grown-ups; thank you Terry, and, once again, god bless you on your travels.
6. The Informant
An extremely clever comedy that exposes the corporate environment, and the feds that monitor it, for the goofy, nerdy farce that it is. Matt Damon, in his phenomenal performance as middle-aged Mark Whitacre, is NOT a slick bitch, at all. He is constantly giving his true intentions, motivations, and ideas hidden away from everyone he knows (save his wife), and, watching it, it is quite obvious to us. The joke of the film is not his performance; it is that, for a long time, no one sees through it. The feds that he is using to gain immunity through information exchange are absolutely in awe of his courage. His bosses admire his work, and promote him. And even his lawyer assumes he has all of his marbles together. But we, the audience, through Soberbergh's camera and Damon's career-best sincerity, that he is totally and utterly full of shit and it will take a while, if ever, for everyone else in the film to catch on. That fact creates truly hilarious comedy out of otherwise boring situations and characters, and, with the added pleasure of Marvin Hamlisch's bouncy score, makes the film an original, striking comedy that deserves mention.
(TRULY BRILLIANT MOVIES)
5. Thirst
Chan-Wook Park is one of those guys...those guys who when you hear about his next movie, you just know you're going to see it. I could hear that his next movie is about Sandra Bullock counting down to her menopause, and I would still be thoroughly fascinated by his handling of the material; if this is his response to Twilight and True Blood, I'm willing to take anything he can dish out. This love story is so tragic, so painfully ugly and messy, that any romanticism inherently contained in vampirism is pretty much thrown out the window; not since Martin (where he has no fangs and extracts blood through razor slices) have I seen vampires this...unfortunate. With enough humor and energy to sustain ones interest more than his lesser works (which are still amazing), this is a true masterpiece from Mr. Park.
4. Up
I'm a guy, in my 20s, my favorite movie is Reservoir Dogs, and this movie had me, and everyone else in the world, crying within 10 minutes of seeing the Pixar logo...if my date had broken up with me, maybe I'd be less appreciative. But in the words of Forrest Gump, that's all I got to say about that. Be a fucking man (or woman) and see this movie, because it is smart, exciting, and moving as a sonofabitch.
3. Zombieland
The American version of Shaun of the Dead reminds me why I like American cinema to begin with. I expected Woody Harrelson to be the Uzi-spraying, banjo-playing, H2 driving ball of irrevrance he is in the film; I didn't expect the nihilism of Jesse Eisenberg's neurotic teenager character. His alienation from the rest of the world allowed him to accept the zombie outburst with ease; he survives through a use of carefully formulated rules (i.e. "limber up" as so not to cramp when running away) that imply, inherently, that he only cares about himself...and he's easily the most heroic of the characters in this film. This, along with elements such as the Metallica-scored title sequence, give the movie a sense of rip-roaring, fuck-it-all energy that makes it a truly modern, American zombie film, the best of its kind in years. There is a reason this was the biggest hit of Woody's entire career. And man, that sequence that everyone has already ruined for everyone else...wow. That felt...good.
2. Observe And Report
If Taxi Driver were released today, it would be a comedy. That is the conceit which Jody Hill made this brilliant character study about feeling lost and aloof in modern society, and the desperate ways we try and find purpose. Seth Rogen spits in the face of his own self-image (if anyone cared to notice) by making his Ronnie sick, dense, and very, very fragile; his own mother is a miserable, bitter drunk, but Ronnie would rather take care of her and elevate his own ego than pursue his own exploits (which would probably be, admittedly, limited). The way he buys into the sincerity of his character is a marvel, as he could've easily been a joke. He, and Hill, want to fuck with your head, and he knows the best way to do that is to play his role completely straight, which, when dealing with subjects like hard drug use, abusing youths, and date-rape, adds miles of subtext and humor. The supporting cast is absolutely perfect, with Anna Faris, Ray Liotta, and Michael Pena representing different aspects of this distant, morally bankrupt, unforgiving world that Ronnie wants to subvert. And the pacing of the film, along with its 2 climactic action sequences, are perfect to a T, keeping a very strong energy throughout to support the dismal revelations Ronnie, and the audience, are making. A new favorite...stronger than any film from the Apatow crew (save for MAYBE 40-Year Old Virgin).
1. Inglourious Basterds
The best film since There Will Be Blood. Tarantino reminds my generation why we considered ourselves reborn after his first 2 masterpieces, and why dozens, if not hundreds of indie directors now find work because of him. The dialogue, pacing, and aesthetic of this film surpasses all of Tarantino's post-Pulp work within its first scene. The slow realization that the film is not completely about the titular Basterds, and merely uses their prominence to accentuate the mad, comic-book version of WWII that's presented, is one of the great pleasures of watching the film. But the thing that really differentiates this from his other work is that QT, by his own admission, was not writing for specific actors, and focused on creating clear-cut, unique characters. This allows Christoph Waltz's Jew Hunter, Til Schweiger's Hugo Stiglitz, Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine, and many others, to attain mythic status solely based on their few appearances in this film. The characters are so rich, layered, and strong that the film, at many points, gets by on their momentum alone. The scene in the French basement (maybe my favorite Tarantino scene since the Reservoir Dogs opening) is about 10 minutes+, and exists almost solely for effect; there is, ostensibly, one possible outcome, but the manner in which the characters get there is so fresh and well-written that the thrill in watching it play out is almost comically tangible. This universe that Tarantino creates is gloriously self-contained while, at the same time, using many real-life elements of World War II to create a tone that teeters dangerously close to schizophrenia, but, by the end, comes off as wonderfully composed madness, the likes of which can only be formed after years of contemplation and work. I was nervous when QT said he'd make the film within a year, disqualifying any actors whose schedules wouldn't accomodate (among them Adam Sandler, Simon Pegg, and Nastassja Kinski); I should've been grateful that he finally elevated his work above the stars he worshipped. I cannot bestow enough love on this fucking masterpiece. Keep 'em coming, QT; we got a generation of cheap, thrill driven filmmakers to train.

A Rage in Harlem (1991)

A pretty entertaining little story about a moll, a sap, a numbers runner, and a kingpin in 1920's Harlem. The half-assed noir plot is as follows: the loot from a train heist falls into Robin Givens hands, who ends up in Harlem trying to exchange the gold for cash. While she's there, she gets entangled with Forest Whitaker's good Christian boy, who helps her on her quest. The plot is decent, but the movie is all about its style. Its slightly stylized 20's environment is very lively and entertaining, the characters are all memorable and interesting. Danny Glover and Gregory Hines are great as gangsters who get caught up in the chaos, and Forest Whitaker turns in a typically great, likable performance.

But the real scene stealer is Robin Givens. Man, this woman may have married Mike Tyson, but back in the day, she was baddddd. Her dialogue is minimal, but she does not overdo the femme fatale angle to earn her sensuality; rather, her natural energy makes her seem like she'd be fine without her body, but she knows it makes her life easier that she has it. She controls rooms of men, and she knows it, but does not show that she knows it. It's a performance that could've easily fallen in the pattern of Kathleen Turner in Body Heat or Jennifer Lange in The Postman Always Rings Twice, but she keeps it more reigned in than that. That being said, her body is on display for most of her screen time, and it is cinematic unto itself; the charisma and charm is just a terrific bonus.

Recommended for fans of modern noirs, 20's decadence, or Robin Givens. This is a great movie to watch on an early afternoon or late at night. Very cool, pulpy vibe, if not the most original thing in the world.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

9 (2009)

Crazy ass post-apocalyptic animated flick about patchwork dolls built with souls to fight the machine plague that wiped out humanity. Elijah Wood voices 9, one of nine of the dolls, who wakes up to this dreadful, steampunk-esque world before stumbling upon his companions. They are all interesting, and have well-etched, if basic, characteristics. The voices are fairly nondescript, but that is more due to the sparse dialogue than the performances themselves. The visuals in the film convey the story magnificantly; one ponders if the film would be better had more of the film lacked spoken dialogue. The introduction to 9 before he finds John C. Reilly's 5, and the rest of the crew, seems brief. Wouldn't the 79-minute movie have benefited from a little more exposition and build-up to give the film a more timeless, wide appeal?

But alas, that would betray the spirit of the film, which is ruthless and dark, to the extent that the film is ostensibly not a children's movie. Characters die. Not only die, get their souls ripped out of their bodies. For good. It's intense shit, and the fact that it doesn't put itself on the pedestal by adding needless backstory and contrived emotional content is probably a blessing, not a curse. I suppose it is not a flaw when the only flaw is that I want more.

Highly Recommended for older fans of animation, steampunk, or solid action cinema. The visuals in this film are utterly phenomenal, but I knew that from the trailer; the competence of the story, however, was surprising.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)

Crazy return to form for Terry Gilliam, recalling his fantastical roots, albeit now with an more mature, reflective edge. The movie is not a Monty Python-esque romp through the whimsical and the divine; there are dark themes at play here, and long sequences of bleak, real world drama. It is nevertheless entertaining and playful, just not in the court jester mode Gilliam used to emulate. His obsession with dreams and recreating them on film reaches their absolute heights here, with CGI sequences that rival anything, in scale and impact, in Avatar. The story is captivating and thoroughly layered, warranting multiple viewings to truly grasp the impact of the characters' imagination in the film...hard to explain further.

Heath is wicked...he was firing on all pistons at this point in his career (sigh). However, he's not the star. The whole caravan, including Verne Troyer and Andrew Garfield in strong turns, is highlighted in an ensemble fashion, but the protagonist is, ostensibly, Christopher Plummer's Dr. Parnassus. His battle with Mr. Nick (or Satan, as played by Tom Waits...as good as it sounds) is at the heart of the film, and the changes and decisions he undergoes are the strongest and most varied of the characters. Plummer is an O.G., and General Chang certainly Von Trapps the shit out of the performance...he mumbles, drinks, and raves more than Dumbledore ever did, but he still manages to seem completely weathered and wise.

Highly Recommended for fans of off-kilter fantasy and/or Terry Gilliam's work. Ledger fans will be disappointed by his lack of display in the film (as will those of Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farell), and Plummer fans are probably too old to read this blog. I rate it above Time Bandits and about the same as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (if Gilliam tops Brazil or Holy Grail, I'll probably just drop acid and marathon his films Tarantino style for a few years).

The Pickle (1993)

Alright parable for Paul Mazursky's own career, with a wannabe-Fellini overtone that reveals the whole thing to be as derivative and trashy as it is. Danny Aiello plays, ostensibly, Mazursky, a director who, desperate for a hit (god what a cliche), takes a job directing a movie about a flying pickle and a planet of spandex-wearing aliens that only live to 48 (including Isabella Rosellini, Little Richard, and Griffin Dunne). On the night of the premiere, he drowns himself in booze, pills, and women in an attempt to soften the blow he is sure the film is going to give to his career. The decadent indulgence, along with his sporadic laments over the glorious idealized films he never got to make, such as a version of Cortez and Montezuma with Beatty and Hoffman (this part's actually played seriously), almost become a parody of Fellini, with the grand intentions and self-importance but none of the production value, creativity, or energy to back it up. The movie is never funny enough to be a comedy, never moving enough to be a drama, and never entertaining enough to be something in between.

That being said, the performances are pretty spot on. Aiello plays Mazursky to the T, allowing the hypocrisy of the chubby, faux artiste who sleeps with his similarly-aged ex-wife the same day as his 22 year-old girlfriend to shine right on the surface; you cannot fault Mazursky with having too much ego (never mind...on the dvd he says the characters not based on him PSHHH). Dyan Cannon, as his ex, is lively and humorous, while Clotilde Courau, as his mistress, is wide-eyed and sympathetic. Chris Penn, Jerry Stiller, Shelly Winters (as Aiello's mom), and Barry Miller turn in strong work to accentuate their terribly underwritten parts; this is Mazursky's show, about Mazursky, all other denizens of the world be damned. But the best moments in the film belong to the film within the film, The Pickle, sending up all the contrivance and forced sentimentality of 80s and early 90s Hollywood with pitch-perfect accuracy. E.T. and Howard the Duck seem particularly evoked in these scenes. Dudley Moore has his last great role from within the film, delivering the line, "It's a bird, it's a plane...IT'S A PICKLE!"

Slightly Recommended for fans of Mazursky, Aiello, or Fellini knock-offs about floundering filmmakers stuggling for relevance. I am not in the latter catagory, so this film didn't really work for me. Then again, neither does much of Fellini...

Sunday, December 27, 2009

True Stories (1986)

David Byrne of the Talking Heads directs this Waking Life-esque weavework about various denizens of a small Texas town. Byrne himself walks around the town as an unidentified narrator interacting with the individuals that he narrates about. The film has a surreal tone, but it is undoubtedly a reflection of how Byrne sees then-modern society in the southwest. He does not hate it as, undoubtedly, many of his coastal contemporaries of the time. He recognizes its peace and admires such inventions as pre-fab homes and metal buildings as simple, beautiful creations.

The lack of a cohesive through-line is what kills this one. The film repeatedly visits John Goodman as a lovelorn "bear," as he calls himself," in his quest to find a good woman to shack up with. However, his whole plot is leading up to a performance he intends to make at the town talent show, which he never does. It is a let down, as Goodman is the sole cohesive element in the film, and the only truly endearing character in the film. The stories and characters scatterred throughout are amusing, and at times, even interesting, but never compelling. There is no doubt that David Byrne is at the machine here, and it never attains the natural Texan charms that Linklater would later achieve with Dazed and Confused or even Slacker. Still, it contains enough insight to warrant obervation by the curious, and its piecemeal style is ideally formatted for a Comedy Central or FX viewing, where you can flip back after an hour and nothing significant has happened.

Slightly recommended, and even then, only on cable. Talking Heads fans should enjoy the bands sporadic appearance in the film, but the music is too far between to warrant recommendation. It is a good background film.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Very interesting, if not thoroughly intellectual take on the legendary detective. I liked a number of things that might irk others; for example, the revisionist performance of Robert Downey Jr. as the titular detective. Unlike with Star Trek or the recent Bonds, I like the modern touches he brings to the character, such as his ramshackle, intellect-based fighting style, his dependent and not necessarily hetero obsession with his partner, Watson, and his very fragile sense of the outside world. In our age of Wikipedia and Google Earth, the information that bounces around in our head is sometimes quite distracting and overwhelming, so we can sympathize when the facts that Sherlock naturally absorbs get the better of him, and he becomes a vague, confused mess of a man. Downey absolutely nails this aspect of the character, possibly due to his infamous experience(s) with drugs.

The other performances in the film are not nearly as successful. Jude Law needs to be at a 10 to capture what Downey brings at a 1, and it shows in their scenes together, which he barely survives. Rachel McAdams is a good foil for Downey, but she's trapped by the unfortunate decision to make her character from New Jersey and not a fellow Londoner. The villain is well-played by Mark Strong, but he is overshadowed by his lack of screen time and the unseen presence of Professor Moriarty, whose absence from the film hurts the self-containment of the film; there must be sequels!

The pace is quick, although not quite blockbuster pace. The film contains martial arts fight sequences and well-written dialogue and deduction scenes, which was a pleasant surprise. Sherlocks musings are unorganized, and almost incidental; there is a hint of Jack Sparrow in Downey's performance, albeit with a lost, pathetic undertone that reminds one that while Johnny Depp owned the Viper Room where River Phoenix ODed on heroin, Downey came fuckin' close to ODing himself. Guy Ritchie delivers the film he was hired to make, but not one that matches the energy, originality, and fun of his early gangster pictures, namely his 2 masterpieces Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch. However, it is more entertaining than Revolver or Rock n' Rolla, and definitely shows his ability to handle more broad, general audience fare.

Recommended for fans of Downey, detective stories, or big-budget fare on the slightly intellectual side. Can't wait for Sherlock 2: Deduce This.

Finding Nemo (2003)

Pixar has an impeccable track record, and Finding Nemo is no exception. It is a highly entertaining, well thought out story that is very relatable and, at the same time, unique to its aquatic environments. The three main characters are all well developed and well cast, especially Albert Brooks as the determined father, Marlin. The side characters are generally amiable, if not that memorable; the rehabilitated sharks and Willem Dafoe's crafty fish are all that stick out. The humor is efficient, but the sentimental story is mainly on display here; the film's crucial flaw is that its father-son subject matter, however successfully executed, is well explored territory, and lacks the originality of, say Up or Toy Story. Nevertheless, it is as dependably engaging, moving, and entertaining as any of Pixar's other films, and I rate it above Cars and Monsters, Inc. but just under Ratatouille.

Highly recommended for those already taken by Pixar's output. Not for the overly-cynical or those averse to aquatic life. Really cute stuff here.

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Chocolate War (1988)

Wonderful film about a Catholic all boys school that is forced, by its headmaster, to sell chocolates to make up for mismanaged funds. Ilan Mitchell Smith, from Weird Science, plays a kid named Renalt struggling for a QB position on the football team and who's mother has recently died. He refuses to sell the chocolates, creating a rift between the administration and the students, who are ostensibly led by an underground preppie group called the Vigils. The film explores the politics of this corrupt, hypocritical high school, where the dogma of Catholicism is barely present, but rather exists to keep the students docile and fearful. The competitive nature of the students is also very apt, as the schemers value their worth in results and the good guys compete with each other to be the most virtuous.

Performances are great all around, with Smith registering, again, as in The Wild Life and Weird Science, as a wonderful, if nondescript-looking young actor. Adam Baldwin and Doug Hutchison are terrific as high-ranking members of the Vigils, and Wally Ward is absolutely slime-drenched and despicable as their leader, Archie. Jenny Wright has a cameo as an infatuation of Renalts, but does not have enough screen time to be crucial to the plot.

The lack of a love story is one original aspect of the film, and another is the almost-exclusively male cast. Aside from visions of Renalts dead mother and Wright, there are no major women characters in the film, and the undiluted, but Catholically castrated masculinity that permeates the film is fascinating and highly entertaining. The presentation of high school as its own universe, with its own rules, ideals, and punishments and goals that do not begin to observe the outside world, is well-explored and atmospheric. The film succeeds in making you feel the stress that the characters undergo, as well as understanding the underlying tragedy that all their youthful pressures are superfluous and tenuous. But, of course, they don't know that.

Highly recommended. A little more intellectual and reflective than most high school movies, especially from the 80s; this ain't no John Hughes flick.

P.S. The Soundtrack has kickass tracks from Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, and 2 from Yaz, including the pitch-perfect title song, In My Room. New Wavers take heed.

Happiness of the Katakuris a.k.a. Katakuri-ke no k├┤fuku (2001)

Funny, but batshit Takashi Miike musical about a family dealing with house-guests repeatedly dying while under their care. The story is light and unchallenging, and provides enough humor and interest to (barely) sustain ones interest. More notable are the directorial touches, such as the musical numbers, which punch up self-consciously corny and cliched scenarios. They are occupied by smoke machines, goofy lyrics, and borderline-slapstick choreography. These scenes are the liveliest in the film, and give the film a subversive edge that rises it above a simple family comedy.

However, the best scene in the film is the opening, a claymation introduction to a weird kind of creature that eats a woman's uvula, and flies away before spawning itself. The spawn, however, does not make a significant appearance in the rest of the film, and I was hoping that this completely fantastical element to the plot would interrupt the relatively mundane proceedings that follow. Even though the cool-ass monster sequence is self-contained, the family plot does pick up once the guests start biting it, and the movie develops its own charming brand of humor. Still, I kept hoping the monster would reveal himself as being the cause of all the deaths, and the film would take a more traditionally Miike turn. Alas...

Recommended for fans of subversive, goofy cinema (John Waters, etc.) and patronizing Japanese humor.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Twilight: New Moon (2009)

What do you expect? Utter dogshit. Dialogue never rings true (save for one scene, later on that), direction is flat and uninspired, acting is strictly CW quality, and when the shit goes down, the action is really not all that cool. Kristen Stewart has a special section in hell waiting for her where lots of depressed, but ostensibly attractive high school girls incessantly push their hair back, bite their lips, and dream about ethereal, omnipotent saviors like Edward while giving it up at 16 to someone on their school's offensive line. Her performance is godawful, and with 3 reasons. 1. (As evidenced in Adventureland, Panic Room, and What Just Happenned) Kristen Stewart does not know how to act. 2. The dialogue that is fed to her is the lamest, most adult-book dreck I've ever heard in my life. 3. Due to their affinity to the books, girls actually force themselves to connect with this wretched creature. So she's poisoning the demeanor of many impressionable young girls, who are going to come of age and infect the general population like poison in water.

Pattinson and Lautner are not as outwardly despicable as Bella, or Stewart; if Lautner plays his cards right, he can actually have a decent career, with his roided out abs and exotic, yet familiar looks. But Olivier would have trouble selling this shit. I mean, when they go into sunlight, the vampires (if you can even call them that) don't explode...they sparkle. They shine like Malcolm X's teeth before he converted to Islam. It's real fucking stupid on paper, and even goofier when they are sparkling bare chested in front of the Vatican. Speaking of which, when they go to Italy, and Michael Sheen and Dakota Fanning fuck with them to see their fidelity to vampirism, the movie is half-entertaining. Watching Sheen, a wonderfully talented actor, steal scenes from these stuck-in-acting class noobs that get all the press was one of the few pleasures of this film. And Dakota MAY ACTUALLY be getting better as she grows up. But this is still utter dogcrap, with verrry few redeemable qualities, and should be forgotten for the progression of humanity.

Avoid at all costs, unless you are a chicky chick or someone who dates a chicky chick. Then it's like the Jonas Brothers in South Park; tingly Ginies all around.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Postcards from the Edge (1990)

Pretty damn successful chick flick written by Carrie Fisher and directed by the terrifically talented Mike Nichols. This one concerns an estranged mother and daughter that are forced to live together, and thus reach a sort of transcendental bond that makes both of them better people. That sounds terribly lame and unappealing to a cock-carrying viewer, right? Well there are several crucial elements going for it. Number 1: The mother and daughter are played by Shirly Maclaine and Meryl Streep, respectively. Number 2: The mother and daughter are supposed to represent Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher herself. Number 3: The supporting cast includes Dennis Quaid, Richard Dreyfus, Gene Hackman, Oliver Platt, and Annette Bening. They all rock ass, especially Quaid as a slick-talking womanizer, and Hackman as a director beating a good performance out of the drug-addled Streep.

Princess Leia can write; the dialogue in this one is pretty sharp, and the relationship between the mother and daughter is very well developed and, for the most part, void of cliches. Mike Nichols, when given a good script, is one of the best in the business, and his touch is evident here in this view of Hollywood from the perspective of a third generation actress, for whom the glitz and glamor is all a facade, and a tired facade at that. If the movie is less than perfect, it is because sometimes it does fall into the trap of being a 90's era Fried Green Tomatoes-esque feminine righteousness film (not surprising, given Fisher's rep), and betrays its universal, non-exclusive appeal. Which is a shame, because there are not enough "chick flicks" that can work for both men and women, and this is very close to being one of them.

Recommended for showbiz junkies, Streep or Maclaine fans, or...chicks I guess. I enjoyed it very much, but no perfect marks due to too many inevitably sappy, estrogen-soaked moments. Even so, as evidenced in several scenes here, no estrogen in the world stands a chance against...HACKMAN!!

Fletch Lives (1989)

Predictably subpar sequel to Chevy Chase's relatively dope 1984 original. It starts well, re-establishing the old quirks and habits that cemented Fletch as Chevy's finest comic creation, but then tanks with the instigation of the banal, poorly thought out, late-80s/early 90's premise: Fletch goes country! Fletch inherits a fucking plantation and fights Hal Halbrook's toxic waste dumping Good Ole Boy. Oh yeah...did I mention it's PG? PG sequels to R rated movies are always awesome...like Caddyshack II.

This came out the same year as Christmas Vacation, and it's clear at this age that was more Chevy's type of movie. The quick talking, sardonic Fletch came off natural and charming in '84, but here it seems like Chevy's trying way, way too hard to play it cool...much like Clark Griswald. He still nails some gags, including a pratfall with a waterbed that caught me off guard, but the whole endeavor feels like a goddam waste of time. Michael Ritchie couldn't add spice to a contrived script with a barrel of paprika.

Only for fans of Chevy, or hardcore fans of the original. Wish they made that Kevin Smith version of Fletch with Jason Lee. Piss on Harvey.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Geronimo: An American Legend (1993)

Racist fucking Hollywood. The Last Samurai starring Tom Cruise. Prince of Persia starring Jake Gyllenhaal (eat me). And this: A movie entitled "Geronimo," regarding the legendary Apache, Geronimo, focused around two white soldiers played by the whitest people alive, Matt Damon and Jason Patric. Sigh.

I expected more from Walter Hill. He's directed movies that give me a boner at their mere mention: The Warriors, Streets of Fire, 48 Hrs., Last Man Standing, and Trespass, as well as Undisputed, Johnny Handsome, and Red Heat. These movies are all stylish pictures with wonderful action scenes and a sense of cinematic scope. However, even with a script from Apocalypse Now/Conan the Barbarian scribe John Milius, this movie fucking draaaaaaags.

The main problem is the focus on the two least compelling characters in the story, two soldiers who were singled out by Geronimo, for whatever reason. While you have Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall, and Wes Studi (as Geronimo) running around being badass, the two lame leads (young Damon doesn't have "it" yet and Patric looks bored) spend their time walking around the desert, shooting ruffians and questioning the morality of their leaders. Huge portions of this film are just boring crap as a result. This is a shame, not only considering the talent involved, but also because of the quality of the scenes with the supporting players. One simple farewell scene between Hackman and Duvall, for example, graps Hill's trademark tough-as-nails male camaraderie to the T, and is one of the films highlights. Scenes like that make the film worth watching, but only by traversing large chunks of pretty worthless western scenes.

Strictly for aficionados of Hill, Milius, or the revisionist western drama; yes, in this one the "white-eyes" are the villains, but, man, if only they didn't get so much motherfuckin screen time (except for Robert Duvall and the HACKMAN).

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Broken Flowers (2005)

Jim Jarmusch scores on a minor note with this story of Bill Murray trying to find his long-lost son by tracking down his former lady loves. The acting talent does a lot to keep one interested in the somber Murray's trek, with his exes being played by the likes of Jennifer Lange, Tilda Swinton, and Sharon Stone. The various encounters between Murray and the women provide the film with a vignette-style approach that is very indicative of Jarmusch (remember his first film, Stranger Than Paradise, was told solely through 9-minute long scenes). Murray's central performance is quite nuanced and real, but also reminiscent of his performance in the lesser Lost in Translation. Jeffrey Wright, as a friend who assists him in plotting out his quest, is much more extraordinary, inhabiting his role completely and registering so likably that he almost dilutes Murray's plight; with a best friend as charming as Wright, how come he feels so lonely?

Recommended for fans of mature indie dramas, Murray, Wright, or Jarmusch. Worth putting up with the slow (even for Jarmusch) pace.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Paths of Glory (1957)

This early film from Stanley Kubrick has Kirk Douglas leading the cast as a colonel in WW I defending the rights of several of his men who retreated after a failed advance. The early scenes in the trenches are well portrayed and appropriately somber and tragic, but it is the later courtroom scenes where the film truly connects emotionally and intellectually. The court martial takes place in a grand palace hall, and the tension that builds in the decidedly high-stakes proceedings is palpable.

Kubrick's touch can primarily be seen in two places: the framing of grandiose scenes such as the aforementioned court martial, and a bleak sense of humor. The somber tone of the film is made bearable by several subtle forms of gallows humor in the spirit of Full Metal Jacket and A Clockwork Orange, particularly satirizing the French high command and their foppish attitudes toward the countless men dying daily on the front. The military element, with obvious liberal overtones and a definitive anti-war stance, reeks of Kirk Douglas, but, aside from the early scenes that give the film a sense of preemptive overkill, the subject matter is quite effective. The ending, like much of Kubrick's work, is a knockout.

Recommended for fans of Kubrick, Douglas, and classic cinema. Not the most exciting film in the world, but an enriching watch nonetheless.

Trick 'r Treat (2008)

Above-average horror movie slightly in the vein of Creepshow, but more freeform than that films strictly anthological content. This one concerns a number of concurrent freaky activities going on in and around a small town on All Hallows Eve. Gore abounds, and the wit is heavy on subverting expectations. Still, there is an emptiness throughout that cheapens the whole endeavor; a sideshow can entertain, but it is still a sideshow.

Recommended for horror fans, especially fans of Creepshow, Tales from the Darkside, and other like minded flicks.

P.S. Anna Paquin plays a virgin who encounters a vampire at one point. Slightly southern accent on her too. Mega-confusing...I kept waiting for Stephen Moyer to yell "UNHAND HER!" and save the day. But alas...

Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar (2009)

James Cameron's Cinematic Output, Best To Worst
(Excluding Piranha II and his documentary work):
The Terminator
Aliens
True Lies
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
Avatar
The Abyss
Titanic

This was not the end all be all of modern cinema. This was not our Star Wars, as some had promised. This was certainly not indicative of the limitless possibilities of 3D. This was what the trailers looked like; a mildly badass hodgepodge of Dances with Wolves, The Matrix, and a little bit of Dune (how DARE they, I say!).

Sam Worthington, contrary to his surname, is worthless yet again. It is one thing to watch a CGI Big Blue Thing fly around a CGI rainforest like its supposed to mean something, it's another thing when the CGI Big Blue Thing represents a character we could give a shit about. The man's a cripple...hope that's as much as you need for character development! Sigourney, Stephen Lang, and J.P. from Grandma's Boy are decent, but too broadly portrayed to be anything other than background filler. Giovanni Ribisi, on the other hands, nails his scenes as the Paul Reiser-esque company man only interested in mining the jungle planet for all its worth. With his delivery clearly patterned after Jeremy Piven's Ari Gold, he refers to the Na'vi as "blue monkeys," and generally tears apart the mystic hoobajoob that Cameron's mythos banks on. Zoe Saldana is also somewhat effective, despite her CGI handicap, in her portrayal of a native warrior woman with the hots for studly Big Blue Thing Worthington.

To argue that the man was not, at one point, a genius is moot. He has given us some of the best genre fare we will EVER receive as fans, and for any one of his true classics (i.e. the first 4 movies on the list above), we owe him our undying gratitude. But he's been underwater for the past 10 years (13+ if you count Titanic), and it shows. The dialogue, characterizations, and plot mechanics here are not much better than Episode 1, as far as I'm concerned. The visuals are what you are paying for with this film, and on that front, he delivers in spades. While no individual sequence is particularly memorable, there are moments scattered throughout that are exciting enough to warrant the multi-hundred million dollar price tag...maybe. I still would've liked to have given a shit about the characters that do things that I would of course love to do myself, but don't really wanna watch someone else do.

If you gotta see it, you gotta see it, and ain't a damned thing I say's gonna stop you. Just know that there is nothing here that will make you forget James Cameron's earlier work, or even the last big movie about indigenous people and invading military forces.

P.S. RANT: This film, and more specifically, the response to it, follows a trend I have noticed recently of movies not necessarily needing to be any good to be considered audience pleasers. Along with Star Trek earlier this year, many advocates of Avatar seem to believe that the visuals overwhelm the necessity for a clear or decent plotline, and accepting the contrivances that allow the spectacle to take place is appropriate for the experience. Having grown up with Cameron's films above, the original Star Trek and Star Wars series, and the old and new Batman films, I don't accept that for a second. The films Avatar gleefully steals from are some fantastic, original films; even those who understand the extent of the inspiration The Matrix derives from Asian cinema acknowledge that it is a well-constructed, revisionist interpretation of those ideas. However, to keep it in a relatable, human world, it stays very grounded: the villains are the machine-gun wielding U.S. military, the primary conflict is over corporate control, and Sigourney's character, unfortunately, asks for a Xanax in one scene. With all the inventions and fancy gadgetry and wildlife that he came up with for this shindig, would it have been so hard to conjure up original villains, motives, or conflicts? Why is it so hard to create an original plot these days? Or are the studios, producers, and filmmakers so scared of alienating their audience they are willing to pander to their increasingly juvenile tastes?

Whatever the answer, I really am getting sick of feeling gipped by the films I see in theaters these days. I wasn't the biggest District 9 fan in the world, but I totally buy that the film had more than one script meeting to come up with the plotline. With Avatar, once again, I feel that the preproduction meetings focused on things they could build, and design, and not on story, character, or dialogue, things that would make the film as timeless as the movies that Cameron blessed us with once upon a time.

Opening Night (1977)

John Cassavetes film from the auteur era about Gena Rowlands as a stage actress coping with her looming age. Not quite as improv based as some of his other work, but definitely shows his fascination with the ways in which people interact. Here, the relationships on display, between Rowlands and her romantically interested co-star (Cassavetes), her overbearing director (Ben Gazarra), and her own youthful alter-ego, are all very complicated and extremely enriching and believable. Cassavetes, in particular, rocks his scenes as a supporting player who, much like Rowlands, uses his work to shield his own emotions, and Gazarra gives a terrifying portrait of a manipulative director who will say or do anything to protect his particular vision.

Rowlands, like in Woody Allen's Another Woman and countless other films, gives a thorough and thought out portrayal of a woman dealing with her age. As an actress, her character does not have the cushion of paranoia to blame her stress on; her face, and the beauty assigned with it, represents her livelihood and her public image. It's a tough role, and requires a lot of emotional catharsis and pain on her part, and she handles it wonderfully.

Highly recommended for fans of Cassavetes, but not where I would start with his work; that would be either Shadows or Faces. Either way, great, mature drama with wonderful performances and a challenging script.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Seventh Seal (1957)

"You've...sunk my Battleship!!" All Bogus Journey memories aside, this movie does really have a spellbinding appeal that warrants its legendary status. The cinematography is ace and the acting, for the most part, is very good. Even most of the philosophical hoobajoob is at least mildly interesting. But the best parts of this film are undoubtedly the scenes with death. This movie does contain very interesting ruminations on, god, death, and the moment at the end of life when we must look into the abyss, with nothing but our faith left.

Still, I can't say I was 100% focused for the whole film. It gets sidetracked a number of times, and I could have done without the subplot of the juggler and his family. That being said, Max Von Sydow's Antonius Block, his Sancho Panza-esque sidekick, and the drunk smith Plog provide more than enough entertainment and intellectual stimuli to sustain ones interest for the entirety of the film. Highly recommended for those who don't bore easily.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Cry-Baby (1990)

Lame John Waters flick trying to homage the 50s with Waters' trademark sarcasm, falling miserably flat. As the titular "Cry Baby," Johnny Depp turns in another one of those pre-Scissorhands performances where he's just trying so dern hard to convince you he's above this cookie cutter trash, which kind of sinks him below it. Everyone else in the film is relatively on board with Waters kitchy tone, including Ricki Lake and Traci Lords as two of Cry Baby's groupies and Iggy Pop as his gramps, but to no avail; aside from some killer song and dance numbers, the movie follows the convention of this type of film too closely to be anything special. But alas, that's probably the point.

I'm not crazy about Waters in general, but his film after this, Serial Mom, is my favorite of his. In that, he perfects his blend of suburban conformity with bizarro freakishness and debauchery, but here, he stays too close to the sincerity to really hit the mark.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

An emotional rollercoaster to say the least. The film opens with old Cate Blanchett on her death bed with Hurricane Katrina happening outside. It's bleak, and stays that way; the plot's main concern is the theme of loss and the fleeting nature of life and human experience. It's deep, but rough. I found it a pretty moving experience, and I can see why this connected with certain viewers as deeply as it did.

Craft wise, the film's near perfect. The epic nature of the film is more than deftly handled by David Fincher, and there are several set pieces that are flawlessly executed. The production design, costuming, and music are all top notch and very evocative of the storybook nature of the film. Dialogue even has some nice Hemingway-esque touches here and there. Pitt and Blanchett are both phenomenal in all of their ages, and Taraji P. Henson is really one of the most likable actresses working today, and shows it here. Tilda Swinton has a wonderful turn as a married English woman who has an affair with Benjamin; if the film has a flaw, its that the initial beats of Pitt and Blanchett's relationship do not match up to the sophistication and charm of his and Swinton's scenes together.

Without having Slumdog Millionaire, I can't say for sure whether this deserved Best Picture over that...but it certainly seems that way. Highly recommended.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Children (2008)

Scary British horror flick about some psycho ass kids that turn on their parents. The set-up is a tad long and the characters aren't as distinctive as one would like, which kills replay value, but there are quite a few scenes where tension is held for an admirably long time for a modern horror film. The scary kid imagery is very well done amidst a snowy backdrop, and the few outbursts of violence are exceptionally well executed. And the female lead is not only fairly credible, she's absolutely adorable and dressed in a comically revealing outfit for much of the movie.

Best film of its kind since the Descent. But like the Descent, I have absolutely no desire to see it again, save maybe a scene or two on television. That being said, the child violence is really exemplary.

CHAOS (2005)

Utter horseshit. Even with Jason Statham and Wesley Snipes. Contrived direct-to-video cop movie plot all focused (surprise surprise) on Ryan Phillipe's rookie.

It (1990)

Tim Curry is such the shit. He is almost always a supporting player, but you always walk away with his performance in mind. Even in fucking Scary Movie 2. But in this his scenes are so much better than the rest of the material it's almost as grimly funny as the bits themselves. The other adult actors are made of cast members of "Night Court," "Three's Company," "WKRP In Cincinnati," "The Waltons," and, seriously, "Smallville." John Ritter is the only highlight, and that's only because his fat childhood counterpart is so likable.

In general, the first half of the miniseries/tv movie that revolves around the children encountering Pennywise is much more intriguing, if only because it's scarier when bad things happen to prepubescents. Plus, a 16 year old Seth Green is "Night Court"'s youthful doppelganger, and he's a great Eddie Haskell ripoff. But even this shit reeks of Stand By Me AND Dreamcatcher, both Stephen King works.

Tim Curry is horrifying as Pennywise. Fear incarnate, especially if you find as clowns as freaky as they fucking are. Worth seeing the movie for...if you can stand Steven King.