Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Random Movie Report #75: Creepshow

Creepshow poster and Amazon Link
It’s rare and remarkable to see a film accomplish exactly what it sets out to do. CREEPSHOW was the first collaboration between Stephen King and George A. Romero, both pretty close to the top of their respective games in 1982. They were united by their shared love of E.C. Comics, the publisher famous for its lurid crime, sci-fi, and (especially) horror comics that got the industry into a heap of trouble in the early Fifties; this homage to the forgotten and verboten titles came long after British studio Amicus’ adaptation of the original stories in TALES FROM THE CRYPT and VAULT OF HORROR, but long before HBO’s CRYPT TV series (to say nothing of TALES FROM THE HOOD.)

And it’s dead-on, not just a great homage but a genuinely good movie to boot. Anthologies can be hard to do well on film, horror anthologies especially, but CREEPSHOW, among other things, benefits from having only one writer and one director. The gap between quality of segments isn’t huge, though some are more effective than others, and the tone doesn’t bump up and down like you’d expect it too. It’s goofy and broad and campy, but that doesn’t stop it being genuinely scary when it needs to be.

CREEPSHOW presents itself as an actual horror comic, torn from the hands of young Billy (Joe King, son of Stephen) by an uncaring father (Tom Atkins, uncredited) and thrown into the trash, its pages blown open by the wind to show us the lurid contents. The first segment, “Father’s Day”, takes place at a mansion where the daughters of a terrible, verbally abusive father have their yearly reunion, one of them hiding a secret. It’s one of the simpler stories and doesn’t work quite so well, but it’s short, and is followed by “Something to Tide You Over”, which by itself makes the movie worth watching. Leslie Nielsen, cast gloriously against type, plays Richard Vickers, a jovial jealous husband who’s uncovered an affair between his wife (a very briefly seen Gaylen Ross from DAWN OF THE DEAD) and young Harry Wentworth (Ted Danson, not quite cast against type). Richard’s a video enthusiast, and has planned a uniquely high-tech form of revenge, dragging the two lovers out to the beach, burying them up to their necks in sand, and waiting for the tide to come in as they watch each other on video monitors. It’s a fiendish and brutal idea, but as always in these stories, there are unexpected consequences.

“The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verill” is a weird comic tale, starring King himself as a simple-minded hayseed who comes across a meteor and suffers a particularly bizarre fate. It’s full of cartoony images and slapstick, and though the result isn’t really a comedy classic, it’s fun just beacuse of the tone it establishes. “They’re Creeping Up On You” is a gruesome morality play about a greedy landlord (E. G. Marshall) who suffers a Howard Hughes-level obsession with cleanliness and a phobia of bugs. So, while he sits inside his high-tech, sterile living quarters, evicting poor tenants and letting others suffer, cockroaches start to show up, and of course, when you see them, there are always more. Finally, “The Crate” is an absolutely ingenious monster story, starring Hal Holbrook as a henpecked husband and Adrienne Barbeau as his alcoholic wife, both at a university where a discovery in the basement leads to mayhem and intrigue.

None of this is the least bit subtle; the characters are drawn broadly, with easy-to-identify traits performed at high volume by skilled character actors. It’s the sort of thing that looks easy, but actually takes a lot of focus to work. A writer’s instinct is to create nuanced and multilayered figures, but first they have to establish strong central traits, and... well, I have a problem with this at least, and if King and Romero err on the side of caricature, the thing about caricatures is that you remember them.

Pacing is always the big problem with anthologies, because there’s rarely an overarching narrative. CREEPSHOW, as said, gets its weakest story out of the way early, though that may not be by design (for all I know King and Romero thought that was their best bit.) The grimmer stories alternate with the more comical, and individually each story is just about the right length to not overstay its welcome. Some of the “scare” moments are drawn out, emulating comic panels with artsy backgrounds and garish lighting; at times it breaks the illusion the stories create, but those moments are brief.

The cast is enthusiastic, with some genuinely great turns here and there. Nielsen dominates “Something to Tide You Over”, surprisingly low-key in his sociopathy, though it’s also interesting to see Danson in a dramatic role. The interplay between the cast in “The Crate” is also pretty impressive; arguably they manage to keep the characters grounded despite the fact that it’s as much a satire of academia as it is a monsterfest.

This is a film where things just work. The stories are developed just enough, the campiness is embraced but not overdone, and the enthusiasm that King and Romero clearly have for the source material translates into an energy that ties the disparate stories together as much as the actual framing device. For all its ghoulish excess, the film is disciplined and skilfully made. It’s not perfect, but it hits a lot more than it misses, and you can tell that both writer and director cared a lot about getting it right. It’s a joy to watch the masters at work.

Written by Stephen King
Directed by George A. Romero

Grade: A-

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Frasierquest 2.2: The Unkindest Cut of All

Daphne + puppies = cutest pic ever
Martin: Oh, why does everything with you shrinks start in the crotch?

As I said in the last post, by this season the producers of FRASIER knew they had a hit on their hands. Critics liked it, viewers liked it, they had people’s attention. Still, it never hurts to hedge your bets, and who doesn’t love a box of puppies?

Eddie hasn’t gotten a lot of space in the reviews thusfar, because as a dog there’s only so much he can do to influence the plot. He gets to do some funny thing once every episode or so, we laugh at the cute doggie, and the plot moves on. This is one of a very few episodes where Eddie is a major plot element, and though it may have come off as a little pandering in comparison to what the show had already done, “The Unkindest Cut of All” has a certain basic I LOVE LUCY appeal to it. There’s not the same attempt at thematic significance as in other episodes, but funny stuff does happen for around 20 minutes or so, so you can’t complain too much.

A neighbor woman informs Frasier and Martin that Eddie has been getting friendly with her dog, and leaves his mongrel seed on their doorstep. Daphne dotes on the puppies while Frasier tries to give them away, and Martin is obligated to take his best friend to the vet to make sure this doesn’t happen again. He backs out at the last minute, compelling Frasier to take up the job, but Martin catches up with the two at the vet, and Eddie runs off while they’re arguing, forcing the Cranes to go look for the missing pooch.

I’m vulnerable to cuteness like most people, and particularly susceptible to transitional cuteness, which is when someone is finding something very cute and themselves looking adorably vulnerable in the process. So Daphne cooing over Eddie’s puppies pretty much melts me into a puddle every time. The tipping point is probably when she names one of the puppies “Basil.” Normally a sitcom going this route is taken as a sign of desperation (c.f. all of FULL HOUSE), but here they manage to sell it.

This is as good an episode as any to talk a little about Moose- who played Eddie for most of the show’s run (he retired in later seasons, letting his son Enzo fill in)- and Matilde de Cagny, the dog’s trainer. De Cagny pretty much “directed” Moose and Enzo throughout the series, making all of Eddie’s gags possible, and though I’m not a connoisseur of animal action in film and television, I have to say it’s impressive what she manages to pull off. Moose naturally gets a lot of face time in this episode, and there’s a real sense of Eddie having a personality, albeit an oddball one. This may be why the cuteness fits in; Eddie comes off more as a character, and not just something adorable they bring in to catch people’s attention.

I’m not sure about the structure on this one- it goes from the puppies, to getting Eddie to the vet, to looking for Eddie when he escapes. I guess those are three acts right there, but it doesn’t quite feel like a setup-complication-payoff situation. Failing to adhere to dramatic unities isn’t really a major drawback, but in this case it does mean that the story seems to peter out- the puppies have all been sold by about halfway in, and the operation doesn’t take place until the credits.

In the end, the main conflict in the story is revealed as Martin’s reluctance to give his best friend what Niles euphemistically refers to as “le snip-snip”. It’s another thing he has to do to live in Frasier’s world and he’s not comfortable with that. The episode manages to touch on the relationship between father and son in the midst of broader funny-animal business. It’s a bit slow due to the plot not being very tight, but it nonetheless proves the writerly axiom that when in doubt, you can’t go wrong with puppies.

Guest Caller: Lily Tomlin as Rita

Written by Dave Hackel
Directed by Rick Beren

Aired September 27, 1994

Daphne: Oh, couldn’t we just keep them for a little while?

Frasier: No, we don’t want them taking after their father. It may be too late already... (to the puppies) Stop staring at me!

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Bookshelf: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Boneshaker cover and Amazon link
I heard about BONESHAKER when the author, Cherie Priest, was interviewed on WAR ROCKET AJAX- that was some time ago, and I had a devil of a time tracking the damn thing down; in fact I’d say I spent more time trying to find it than reading it actually took. Even though the book runs some 400 pages, they go by fast. Even though it takes place against an elaborate alt-history steampunk backdrop, in which an attempt to build a better mining machine turned the population of downtown Seattle into flesheating zombies, the story is rather ingeniously boiled down to a mother and son searching for answers and for each other amongst the ghosts of the past.

The book takes place in the late 19th century, in the midst of a prolonged U.S. Civil War (though that doesn’t have a lot to do with the story.) About a decade-and-a-half earlier, the Alaska gold rush sparked a contest for devices that could dig under ice, and one intrepid inventor got a little too creative with the Boneshaker, a giant steam-powered drill. A premature test tore through most of downtown Seattle, before digging into the ground far enough to release a toxic gas known as the Blight. What does the Blight do? Well, it turns people into shambling flesheaters called “rotters”. Flash forward, and downtown has been walled off, with everyone living outside trying to keep too much of the Blight from getting into their air and water.

Briar, the late scientist’s widow, has been raising her son Zeke alone and keeping her head down. Zeke’s a teenager now, and he wants to know more about his father and what happened way back then, and with his mother silent and ashamed on the subject, he gets himself a gas mask and heads through a drainage pipe under the wall. No sooner does Briar find out about this than she goes after him, but an earthquake collapses the pipe, meaning she has to hitch a ride via airship. (Oh yeah, there are airships.) Inside the wall, there are still rotters waiting to devour human flesh, but also people living underground, trying to pump the Blight from the air and living in fear of the domineering Dr. Mitternicht.

That a story with this many ideas in it doesn’t go completely off the rails is a testament to how disciplined Priest is as a writer. The story is told more or less entirely through the eyes of Briar and Zeke, alternating between their points of view as they work their way in parallel through the ruined city. The alternation creates a lot of great cliffhanger moments, and the action flows at a natural (albeit breakneck) pace. Subplots are kept to a minimum; they exist but they don’t intrude too much on the main story.

At the same time, Priest has obviously put a lot of work into the setting, to the extent that there are probably other stories to be told in it. As I said, I’m not entirely sure what the Civil War angle contributes to the story, but I may have missed a detail there. As for the main story elements - airships, zombies, toxic zombie-creating gas - they’re blended very well. The rotters don’t completely dominate the action - it’s not a zombie book per se, or at least exclusively - but rather they show up every so often to tear through the streets and threaten everyone’s lives. These passages are particularly well-written, with the creatures described almost as a single boiling mass, sweeping through fragile buildings, up ladders, anywhere they can find purchase. We get some airship combat as well, which is briefly confusing but that may have been because I took a break between chapters, and the way the Blight is handled is very effective. Basically a kind of necrotic mustard gas from deep in the bowels of the Earth, it irritates the skin at first, and is even abused as a drug by some of the inhabitants of the city, even the ones outside the wall. Gas masks and clothing that doesn’t expose any skin are essential, and the constant attention given to details like mask filters and the seals outside safe zones drives home the reality of the threat.

None of this would work if the characters didn’t, and Briar and Zeke are both well-drawn. Briar is an interesting choice for a protagonist, being the working single mother of a teenaged boy, and she comes off as capable without being immediately exceptional- for years she’s just wanted to keep her head down, but her son forces her into an extraordinary situation. Zeke has an energetic nervousness I like, and there are a number of interesting supporting figures, including Dr. Mitternicht, about whom I can say little because what happens with him is fairly clever (and what you’re thinking is not it.)

Warren Ellis calls this Priest’s “breakthrough” book, and that somehow seems right to me even though I haven’t read any of her other ones yet. BONESHAKER is imaginative and wild and full of neat things, but it’s also tautly written and carefully constructed. Even if you’re not a fan of steampunk or zombies or alternate history, this is a fun read which puts all those elements in service of a believable human story. I hope more people discover this book, and I’ll have to give Cherie Priest’s other works a look.

Grade: A-

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Now, the Republicans weren't entirely wrong.

This is feeling kind of like Waterloo:

If they'd just been more specific I wouldn't have been so frightened.

Frasierquest 2.1: Slow Tango in South Seattle

Frasier and Clarise (Constance Towers) reunite
Martin: So this whole book is about the night you conceived Frederick?

Frasier: Very amusing, Dad. You’ll be happy to know that wasn’t my first time.

Martin: Hey, I’m happy to know it wasn’t your only time.

And we’re back. By the time the second season started, FRASIER was a palpable hit. Critics liked it, the ratings were good, Emmys were starting to pile up- now that the show had proved itself, it was time to step up the game. There are no major shifts in the second season (apart from better video quality and the main title being in red instead of blue), but the plots start getting a little more elaborate and the humor more ambitious. It feels more like the show is going at full speed, and I’m looking forward to a lot of the episodes coming up.

“Slow Tango in South Seattle” is an episode I feel like I’ve seen more often than most, and I’m not entirely sure why, but a case can be made for it being one of the classics. It has a genuinely inspired premise and unusual structure, and the script has a number of great exchanges. (There are some times where I ponder turning my traditional two-quote bookends into something even larger, but that way lies full transcripts of episodes.) There’s nothing in it that particularly marks it as a season opener, but that was more or less the way things went in the show’s early years. But it’s a good way to get started again- a Frasier-centric show with side business for the other characters and a few guest stars thrown in.

“Slow Tango in South Seattle” is the name of a romance novel that has all the women in Seattle and beyond a-flutter. Frasier recognizes the author, Thomas Jay Fallow (John O’Hurley), as a man he knew from Cheers, and upon closer investigation finds that the story is one from Frasier’s own life, one that he confided to Fallow long ago. It doesn’t help that this story is of his first sexual experience, with an older and welcoming piano teacher. Frasier gets Fallow to admit the debt he owes to him, but in the end, that’s not enough. The book makes him realize that he left his first love abruptly, without closure, and he decides to make amends.

Some things never change, among them the occasional inexplicable popularity of not-terribly-well-written books. Granted, Fallow’s offering has no conspiracies or undead creatures, but other than that it’s pretty recognizable. The brief excerpts we hear are wonderfully purple, and pitched just right at a Spinal Tap level of ridiculousness- you can imagine this selling even as you recognize how over-the-top it is. (I’m almost 100% sure the specific target is THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, but I barely know anything about that book so I’m just going by the geographical element.)

We learn a few things about Frasier, possibly more than we cared to. (Reports that he can bring women to hidden realms of ecstasy with his panther-like prowess are unconfirmed, but SOMETHING has to keep bringing in the hot guest stars.) The episode shows him at his worst, then his best; he lets his desire to get fair credit for Fallow’s success get to his head, and is humiliated for it, but as is normal for him, he digs a little deeper, finds a sin from his own past and decides to make it right. For once, Martin is wrong when he criticizes Frasier for being too introspective; it turns out that Clarise Warner (Constance Towers) doesn’t feel bad about what happened, but trying to get closure was the right thing to do anyway.

As the season premiere, “Slow Tango” gets us reintroduced to all the regulars, even if, in terms of the plot, they serve only to jolt Frasier’s memory. Not only do all the main cast get some funny business, but the episode also throws in Bulldog and Gil, who has gone from sycophantic threat to Frasier’s career to merely ribbing him once in a while. We get some physical information on Maris, and I think this is about the point where she drifted into the realm of “impossible to show.” This was supposed to be a misdirect; the writers wanted to tease the character out but eventually reveal her, but when Niles talks about her quadraceps being “so tight she’s incapable of straddling anything larger than a border collie”, you can hear the list of possible actresses shrinking. Just about every character gets at least one good laugh line (Eddie excepted), cementing the show’s ensemble nature.

(In yet another case of something I can’t fit in anywhere, Daphne’s threat to give Eddie “a little spank on his fanny” becomes weird when you realize that British slang puts the fanny, well, adjacent, and absolutely nowhere on a boy dog. In fairness, this was before Urban Dictionary.)

“Slow Tango” may just be a memorable episode; it’s not a plot the show did very often, the character beats ring true, and there’s a lot of funny business surrounding them. And making fun of bad literature will hopefully never get old.

Guest Caller: James Spader as Steven

Written by Martin Weiss
Directed by James Burrows

Aired September 20, 1994

Frasier: (reading to himself, in voice-over) “He had been a teenage Balboa, an explorer of the rising pinnacles and gently curving slopes of my body, and in one explosive burst of discovery he had staked claim to the Pacific Ocean that was my soul. But now he was leaving. Vanishing like a solitary boat on the lonely horizon. Departing like a train, rolling ceaselessly through the night. Exiting swiftly, like...”

(Frasier sighs and skips ahead a few pages)

Frasier (v.o., cont’d): “...and so, he was gone.”

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Random Movie Report #74: Shanks

Shanks poster and IMPAwards link
The early Seventies were a time when major Hollywood studios granted an unprecedented level of creative freedom to filmmakers. We primarily remember this period for the early masterworks of filmmakers like Coppola, Altman, Scorcese, and so on. What fewer people know is that the studios’ greater willingness to experiment also resulted in some really weird shit. There were films backed by the likes of Paramount, Universal, et. al. that would not be backed or released at any time before or probably since, and as a nice reminder of this period, TCM’s “Underground” recently broadcast SHANKS, legendary horror guru William Castle’s last film as director and a vehicle for famous mime Marcel Marceau.

I have seen many weird films. I take it as a point of pride. So when I say SHANKS is one of the very weirdest films I have ever seen, take a minute to contemplate what that means. We are in freaky-deaky territory. Part comedy, part horror film, part silent movie homage, part showcase for mime choreography, SHANKS is a film that fell behind the desk of the movie industry and has collected dust for some time. It is not on DVD, and I’m not even sure there ever was a VHS release either. There are many reasons for this- it’s a slow, quiet movie with all sorts of problems, but there’s something jaw dropping about it too. It’s just singular enough to be worth seeing, and it goes so far outside the bounds of normal filmmaking that it’s hard to judge by normal criteria. I've got this tagged for the Academy of the Underrated, but the heading is for Random Movie Report because brother, they don't get any more random than this.

Marceau plays two roles, that of Malcom Shanks, a deaf-mute puppetteer living on welfare with his awful relatives, and Old Walker, a scientist experimenting with reanimation. He sees Shanks’ skills controlling marionettes and employs him to work at mastering a form of remote-control involving electrodes placed in dead bodies- first frogs, then chickens, then people. Walker dies after several weeks, but Shanks is unable to convey this to his horrible drunk brother (Philippe Clay) and horrible shrewish sister-in-law (Tsilla Chelton), who send him back to work to get more money. So Shanks works on re-animating his old companion, taking him for walks and making his movements almost lifelike. When his brother tries to shake up Walker for the money he’s promised, Shanks kills him with a radio-controlled chicken, then adds him to his puppet ensemble- along with the wife when she gets hit by a car. Things are going well until Celia (Cindy Einbacher), a little girl who’s friends with Shanks, insists on going on a picnic with him and his housemates, during which she discovers what he’s been up to. Somehow this doesn’t bother her too much, and he takes her to an impromptu birthday party at Walker’s place, but then, as commonly happened in the Seventies, a biker gang shows up.

Presented as a “grim fairy tale”, SHANKS seems to primarily have been conceived as a vehicle not just for Marceau’s own miming skills, but those of the people he revives. (Marceau served as choreographer on the film as well.) It’s a classic low-budget, in which a producer looks at what resources he has available at the time and bases a film around them. If you know a guy who has a prop plane, you make a movie with lots of flying sequences; if you know a mime, make a movie about corpses being raised and turned into life-size puppets. The film has a weird, creaky stylization to it, complete with silent-movie-style intertitles that make some interesting comments on the action.

One doesn’t expect learning how to control corpses via electrodes to be an easy task (God knows the aliens in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE had their problems with it), but a good portion of the action is taken up with Shanks mastering his craft on Walker and others, and well, there’s no avoiding it- this is really goddamn slow. Judicious editing could easily have cut a lot out of the film, but I imagine the problem was that doing that would have left Castle without enough for a feature. That said, there is a certain fascination in it too- the agility displayed by the performers is amazing, to be sure, and they’re all very convincingly awkward and manipulated. It’s a bit like watching the dancing in an Astaire/Rogers movie- it doesn’t advance the plot much, but it’s meant to be compelling in and of itself.

This is a film that by all rights should be utterly awful. Shanks’ relatives are so authentically nasty that they become painful to watch, up until the point where they die and become lovable automatons. Appropriately for an early-Seventies film, the moral compass of the picture is all over the place- the climactic captions try to paint this as a struggle between good and evil, but Shanks did kill his brother, and is making a living of sorts off this bizarre practice. But Marceau does make the character work as an outcast antihero, and I have a weakness for those.

It’s a weird enough movie that I was surprised to see the Paramount imprimatur on it, because I’m trying to imagine how the Hell you pitch something like this. Maybe Castle was using his good will from ROSEMARY’S BABY. But something this odd, this inconceivable, takes on a life of its own. I can’t help but think it’s valuable in and of itself, independent of any objective aesthetics; it’s such a singular production that it must be preserved and treasured because nothing like it will ever slither out of the studio machinery again. So, Paramount, give us a DVD, if not for commerce, then for the ages.

Written by Ranald Graham
Directed by William Castle

Grade: B-

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Top Ten Films of the Decade, etc.

So, with a decade behind us (it is, just accept it, okay?), it’s time to look back at some of the great movies of that time. The aughts saw the technological strides of the nineties become commonplace, while business as usual reigned in Hollywood despite the encroachment of people using the internet to access all media whether it was legal or not. DVD buried VHS, and we found ourselves weirdly nostalgic over a format that sometimes got tangled in the devices needed to play it. And current events grew increasingly impossible to ignore, with 9/11 allegories and left/right politics seeping into seemingly every bit of fantastic folderol that you went to to try and get away from that sort of thing to start with. Digital grading was abused and tripods were discarded, superheroes became big business and horror got all rusty and blue-green for some reason. Overall I’d say we had more good years than bad, so at least this is one area where the whole “the last decade was awful” thing doesn’t need to be raised. Let’s accentuate the positive.

No particular order this time, just filling space. And why not 15? More if you count some of the clumping together.

1. The LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy. (2001-03). Like so. You kind of have to look at all these films together, and together, they represent not just a remarkable achievement in terms of filmmaking logistics, but a genuine epic saga that moves effortlessly from big moments to small ones, from grand armies to wandering hobbits. These films brought gravitas to the blockbuster even as Peter Jackson occasionally indulged in silliness and excess; somehow the final product holds together, and brings Tolkien’s world to life even if it messes with the sequence of events a bit. Beautifully rendered down to the last geeky detail.

2. CHILDREN OF MEN (2006). The best science fiction film of the decade, and the best portrait there is of the nihilistic despair that started to cloud over modern socio-political discourse as world events worsened. Here we have a society without a future, except for one thin strand of hope- but that strand is what keeps the film itself from collapsing into morose brooding or sermonizing. At heart it’s a reminder that as terrible as life can be, it’s inherently amazing and needs to be fought for despite the opposition. It doesn’t hurt that it works incredibly well as an action thriller, with some magnificent setpieces.

3. SPIRITED AWAY (2002). Hayao Miyazaki’s masterwork, a gorgeous fairy tale which, while meditating on the environment and spiritual health and identity, never puts the message ahead of the reality of the world it creates. A feast for the eyes and ears, this is a beautiful and sincere picture which has a way of lodging in your heart.

4. WALL-E (2008). Undoubtedly one of the big stories of the 00’s was how Pixar, already having a decent track record, managed to be so consistently awesome that they ended up overshadowing Disney itself. There are many peaks in their work, I’ll even say several good things about CARS if anyone cares to listen, but I chose this as a representative example of just how good they can get at- well, everything. A lovely post-apocalyptic romance between two machines cleaning up after mankind’s mess, WALL-E evokes environmental themes without preaching and instead makes the more general point that we need to reach out to each other and shake ourselves out of routines. Stuffed with cuteness and so well-animated that the occasional bit of live action doesn’t seem the least bit incongruous.

5. KNOCKED UP (2007). Either it’s a refreshingly mature bad taste comedy or a refreshingly raunchy romcom, but Judd Apatow’s story of unplanned pregnancy and how it forces a man to grow up is both smart and unpretentious. Apatow’s work has been criticized for focusing on the male side of stories like this, and it’s a fair cop, But this is still a believable and empathetic story, and I can’t help but hope we get something of its ilk on the distaff side sooner rather than later. (In other words, there need to be better chick flicks.)

6. SERENITY (2005). I have not encountered the legions of annoying Joss Whedon fans who are apparently sufficiently rabid to make any praise of the man’s work seem a little suspect, but I understand I’m going out on a limb here. SERENITY doesn’t transform the genre or sum up the zeitgest of the era in any significant way, but it is a really poundingly well-made and compelling space picture, with vibrant characters, sparkling dialogue, a suitably gritty and intense atmosphere, and some interesting points to make about trying to believe in something while not letting belief make you a monster. It’s a ripping yarn, with existentialism thrown in.

7. A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE (2005). A brute psychic punch courtesy David Cronenberg, who with screenwriter Josh Olson turns John Wagner and Vince Locke’s graphic novel into a downright unsettling story. To venture a guess I’d say it’s about violence as inherent to the human condition, something always lurking beneath the surface, but that’s just one reading. Viggo Mortensen got himself some star power in the RINGS movies, and now he’s determined to become the next Clint Eastwood, a thinking man’s ass-kicker. Rough and intense beneath a cool surface. (The movie, not him. Well, maybe him.)

8. THE AVIATOR (2004). The film that reminded us all that Martin Scorcese is an entertainer at heart. A bold, passionate movie that tempers its old-fashioned epic feel with a more modern understanding of the mental illness that plagued Howard Hughes and how he fought to accomplish great things in the face of it. And even with that, it’s just fun to watch, from its sumptuous rendering of vintage Hollywood to some incredibly sharp performances.

9. ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND (2004). Or, what would happen if Philip K. Dick wrote an indie relationship movie. Charlie Kaufman, one of the few screenwriters that people actually try to pay attention to, creates an interesting portrait of the frictions and pitfalls of attraction, while also musing about memories and identity. Also, Kirsten Dunst dances in her underwear. I’m not made of stone, people.

10. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000). A lot of people have reduced this to a modern day REEFER MADNESS, but while the film’s portrayal of drug use is far from positive, it’s not really a message movie at all. It’s more simply a tragedy, a tale of dreams and addictions, and on that level it’s just beautifully done, Aronofsky’s various camera tricks serving to enhance the story rather than distract from it. It’s the sort of film you only really need to see once, but I’ve got the DVD anyway. Maybe I’ll be up for a viewing in another ten years.

11. MOULIN ROUGE (2001). Officially it was probably CHICAGO that marked the musical’s comeback after decades in the wilderness, but this was the catalyst- a riotously inventive spin on LA BOHEME and LA TRAVIATA, wherein the excess is pretty much the entire point. It’s been posited, and I’m almost inclined to agree, that the central tragedy is not strictly necessary, but I may have to watch it again to judge. In any case, it’s an unbelievably fun film with some great songs, including what may be, with apologies to Madonna, the best rendition of “Like A Virgin” that ever there was.

12. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009). I just waxed rhapsodic about this in the last post, suffice it to say, Quentin Tarantino made some very good movies this decade, but this was the biggie. A great blend of killin’ Nazis, ironic questioning of the pleasure we get from watching the killing of said Nazis, and then killing some more anyway because why not. Nobody’s going to complain. They’re Nazis.

13. GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002). To be sure, the hatchet job Harvey Weinstein did on this picture probably hurt it just a smidge, and I would give anything to see a proper director’s cut. What we have is a flawed, messy masterpiece. There are bits of it I don’t like, I think Henry Thomas’ character comes off as too pathetic, but the parts of it that are great are so goddamn great that they elevate the entire thing above the sum of its parts. The last 15 minutes or so are some of the best filmmaking I’ve ever seen. Chaotic, brutal, beautiful.

14. LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (2008-ish). The best horror film of the decade, and one of the very few that eschewed the increasingly ritualized conventions of the genre in favor of just telling a good story. A twisted tale of childhood friendship against a horrifyingly sterile backdrop. Also vampires.

15. THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS (2001). Wes Anderson’s follow-up to RUSHMORE has matured with age, or maybe my being older has made me like it more. From its novelistic structure to its dry wit to Anderson’s near-trademark empathy for all his characters, it’s a funny and touching experience that is all the more heartwarming for not forcing schmaltz on the viewer. Also the reason I think Gwyneth Paltrow is a worthwhile actress.

Most Underrated Film of the Decade: SPEED RACER. Again, this was no contest. A cult is forming, and all over the Internet I have heard from intelligent people of discerning taste who loved the fuck out of this movie, and yet critics and audiences alike rejected it. Do people not like color and fun? Was John Goodman battling ninja not awesome enough? Does the film’s relentless chirpiness count as a negative these days? Is it just bad karma because the Wachowskis kind of mucked up the MATRIX sequels? My mind is boggled. It’s like when you learn that audiences didn’t like IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE or BRINGING UP BABY.

Prominent runners-up: SUPERMAN RETURNS (as I mentioned in my ‘09 post, opinion has really turned sour on this one, but I love it still), ACROSS THE UNIVERSE, LADY IN THE WATER, HULK.

Worst Film of the Decade: DOWN TO YOU. Look, my college had this cable station of sorts where they’d run movies and it was free and I had time to waste, so when I saw that this was bad I decided to see just how bad it was precisely so I could justifiably list it as one of the worst films of all time. Everything that is wrong with the romantic comedy as a genre is in this movie.

Saul Bass Award for Best Opening Credits Sequence, Maurice Bender Decade Division: LORD OF WAR. Andrew Niccol’s hugely underseen drama about the illegal arms trade has a wonderfully provocative opening about the journey of a bullet from manufacture to use. The CGI is a little obvious now, but it’s a great scene, and you should see this movie if nothing else to remind yourself that Nicholas Cage made at least one really great film this past decade.


Saturday, March 06, 2010

The Top Ten Films of 2009 and Assorted Miscellany

And so we come to the end of a decade (note: I was with the pedants on the milennium thing, but are you seriously trying to convince me that 1980 was part of the seventies, 1920 part of the teens, etc.?) Movie-wise, 2009 was, well, it was okay. There wasn’t a huge crop of great films released, and there were a lot of dry patches. On the other hand, the great films, when they did come out, were spectacular- some of the best work in their respective genres and of their filmmakers in a long time. In order to preserve some suspense I’ll be counting in ascending order this time.

10. MOON. A study in isolation that’s part puzzle and part psychological drama. Sam Rockwell has to play against himself and virtually no one else for the whole picture, and pulls it off against an artmospheric 2001-inspired backdrop. The picture is chilling without ever being cold, a strong script executed with style.

9. THE IMAGINARIUM OF DR. PARNASSUS. Terry Gilliam meditates on the nature of art and the passing of the traditional storyteller in an invitingly surreal and organic-feeling cascade of images. Heath Ledger’s final performance is energetic and expert, and while the story doesnt make the most sense, it works beautifully as a tone poem.

8. PONYO. A very sweet childhood friendship story, surrounded by disaster and the anger of nature. As with most all of MIyazaki’s work it’s a visual symphony, and almost unbearably cute at times. Just plain lovable.

7. STAR TREK. Something that could have gone very, very wrong, this modernized and testosterone-injected reboot of a beloved sci fi franchise instead holds up as a boisterous and fun entertainment. I coulda done with more sense of wonder, and the plot has a few cracks here and there, but some wonderfully enthusiastic acting, a strong visual sense, and an outright witty script make this the kick in the pants the TREK universe needed.

6. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. Some critics argued this radical embellishment of a beloved children’s book was too mopey for its own good, but then, the whole point of the book was that all Wild Rumpuses burn out after a while. Spike Jonze manages to speak to the strange rhythms of childhood imagination, and how happiness and sadness and anger can overpower a young mind who doesn’t know that such moods are a part of life. But it’s not a dry intellectual exercise, instead possessed of a sincerity and organic, intuitive imagination that makes the whole journey quite powerful.

5. THE HURT LOCKER. This may not be the most accurate depicition of the life of a military demolitionist you’ll find, but it definitely feels true and absorbing. Kathryn Bigelow’s expert action thriller, following in the vein of two-fisted postwar stories like THE WAGES OF FEAR and THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, navigates around the politics of the Iraq war to present a picture of human compulsion and addiction and how we acclamate ourselves to the most inhuman of environments.

4. UP. Pixar decided to make things hard for themselves by making their latest children’s epic the story of an old man who wants to fulfill his dead wife’s ambition, with a message that you shouldn’t let the trappings of dreams overshadow the true needs they articulate. Fortunately they also had an overenthusiastic boy scout and a talking dog. In an age where children’s entertainments often seem very calculated, UP manages to hold together brilliantly as a story while seeming totally ramshackle. Oh, yeah, and there’s the perfect devastation of the opening sequence, which is basically the filmmakers saying “We know how to make you cry and we’re not afraid to do it.”

3. CORALINE. The old “girl gets what she wished for only to find out it’s not what she wanted at all” fantasy plot is given new life, with a gorgeous look, strong characterization, and a general off-kilter feel. It’s got a lot of personality, and a lot of imagination, and I think better of it now than when I first saw it.

2. FANTASTIC MR. FOX. As you can tell, there were some great children’s movies released last year, some outright masterpieces in fact. Somehow, this is the best. Wes Anderson’s unique adapatation of the Roald Dahl book is just fun, seemingly effortless in its charm despite being meticulously handcrafted from frame to frame. The dialogue sparkles, the visuals are warm and sensuous, the cast is in peak form, and a general good will pervades the enterprise. I’m speaking in generalities because I’m not even sure why this is as good as it is. Like THE WIZARD OF OZ, its parts are terrific, but the whole achieves something that can’t be explained.

1. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. I’m going to go and say this is Quentin Tarantino’s best film in over a decade, and this is coming from someone who loved the Hell out of DEATH PROOF and both volumes of KILL BILL. Those were loads of fun, but this is a true masterwork, one part Spaghetti Western/Nazi kill fest to two parts invocation of the power of narratives. As much carnage as there is, the most intense moments are conversations drawn out uncomfortably as participants seek to subtly leverage power over each other. Christoph Waltz’s ferociously intelligent Col. Landa is one of screendom’s great villains, all too easy to underestimate and deadly when he gets the upper hand. The film both satisfies a certain desire to see history’s monsters get what was coming to them and makes us feel a little ashamed of that, but just how much the film leans to the former or the latter is a matter that could be debated for years. Expertly made and calculated for full impact, this is a reminder that Tarantino actually can do things with the wealth of film references and techniques he’s borrowed over the years.

Runners Up: The Hangover, Sherlock Holmes, Up in the Air

Not Seen Yet: Precious Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, A Serious Man, An Education

Performances that impressed me:

Sam Rockwell, MOON
Kevin Spacey, MOON
Anna Kendricks, UP IN THE AIR
Karl Urban, STAR TREK
Tina Fey, PONYO
Woody Harrelson, ZOMBIELAND
Sharlto Copley, DISTRICT 9
Alison Lohman, DRAG ME TO HELL
Jeffrey Dean Morgan, WATCHMEN
The Entire Goddamn Cast, FANTASTIC MR. FOX

Most Underrated Film of the Year:

This Space Reserved

This is kind of embarassing. Just about every film I enjoyed this year was, on some level or another, well received. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE was maybe a bit polarizing, it bears watching in the event that a SUPERMAN RETURNS situation develops, but apart from that, I didn’t find myself going against the tide that much. Obviously a number of films on my list could have done better than they did, but I don’t feel comfortable putting a merely-mildly-received picture up here. So I’m going to wait. I haven’t seen every film released in 2009, and I may eventually find one that got an undeserved bad rep. I’m keeping my eye on some prospects. Will update when I find a deserving entry.

Worst Title of the Year: PRECIOUS BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE. This is what happens when you let lawyers decide movie titles.

Saul Bass Memorial Award for Best Opening Credits Sequence: WATCHMEN. This was actually a fairly good year for the endangered opening credits sequence, and I had a lot of entries to choose from: WOLVERINE, CORALINE, DRAG ME TO HELL, ZOMBIELAND, etc. Ultimately, though, the brilliant condensation of pages worth of key backstory into a simple musical montage is something that even people who disliked the WATCHMEN movie thought it did well.

Speaking of which:

Sweet Home Alabama Award for Song We Never Need to Hear in a Movie Ever Again Ever Goddamn It: “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen (includes all covers.) Cohen is a great songwriter. He has written other songs. Where the Hell is “Suzanne”, people?