Best of 2009 (of What I've Seen, Anyway)

Ah, the end-of-the-year best-of lists.  I'll also soon be doing one for the decade, although I think I'm gonna give it a few months to catch up on the end of '09 stuff that I still haven't seen due to the fact I live in South Carolina.  In any case, here are my ten picks for best of the year, in alphabetical order (except for the one that I want to single out as the best).  Discuss, dissect, hate.

I haven't ever experienced a music documentary quite like this.  The two permanent members of Anvil! are a testament to the power of musical expression.  This movie pulls on heart-strings while making me want to rock out all night.  Silly as it is, metal is sometimes really fun and energetic music, and this band really gets that.  Experience the opening sequence, with footage from the band thirty years ago up to now thrashing away on their semi-hit "Metal On Metal" and you'll know what I'm talking about.

Henry Selick's magical adaptation of Neil Gaiman's novel is quite breathtaking in 3-D, featuring what may be the best and most subtle use of the technology I've yet seen (and yes, I've seen AVATAR).  The stop-motion animation is seamless, the voicework is top-notch, and the overall atmosphere is really creepy for a children's fable, harkening back to the classical settings of Grimm's fairy tales, with wickedness out to get the little ones at every turn.

A return to form for Sam Raimi, who has spent the past decade making Spider-Man movies of varying quality (the first two are great, but the third was overstuffed).  Harkening back to his roots in the EVIL DEAD films, he goes all-out with this tale of gypsy curses, demonic possession and mortgage payments.  The film plays more Tex Avery than Moe Howard, but that's not a bad change of pace for a man who basically created the modern horror-comedy.

Wes Anderson's adaptation of Roald Dahl's classic story is a wonder to behold.  There's a rickety quality to the animation that brings to mind Harryhausen's original mastery of the form, and the camerawork brings to mind a storybook more often than not, with lots of play within lateral planes.  George Clooney is great as always as the voice of Mr. Fox, but Jason Schwartzman's subtle and utterly dry line delivery steals the show.  There are also great visual gags, and unexpected moments of pure wild animal behavior.  A Grade-A classic any day of the week.

Brad Pitt is hilarious as Lt. Aldo Raine, but Christoph Waltz is a revelation; if he doesn't win every acting award possible it will be an outrage.  The film is quintessential Tarantino cinema-bake, with a dash of anything and everything, and even some newer stuff thrown in for good measure.  Not only does this film re-write history, but it places cinema square in the middle, where I'm sure any good cinephile would like to think of it anyway.  And the entrance of the Bear Jew is one of the best intros to a character in recent memory.

Sam Rockwell gives an amazing performance as an astronaut stranded on the moon by a company that sent him up for a simple mining operation.  When he discovers a body that looks just like his own after an accident at one of the mining sites, the film really gets weird.  There's a moment when three Sam Rockwells are running around on screen at once, and it could have gotten to be too much, but the direction by Duncan Jones (David Bowie's kid, Zowie) is top-notch, and the production design is rather brilliant, featuring tons of miniatures, which isn't done so often nowadays what with the fancy CGI and whatnot.  This was a surprise, and I can't wait to see it again.

As bleak and despairing as it is hopeful, John Hillcoat really outdid himself with this one.  After directing one of the best films of the past decade with THE PROPOSITION, he found material that suited his sensibilities perfectly and wrung the best damned adaptation possible out of it.  Viggo Mortensen is great as always, and no one really carries the screen in brief moments like early scene-stealer Garret Dillahunt (who was fantastic in DEADWOOD and the remake of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT).

Disney/Pixar continues their string of amazing films with UP, about an old man who has always dreamed of travelling with his wife, is off to see Paradise Falls, and becomes caught up in the adventure of a lifetime.  Bittersweet, comic and even a bit romantic, UP will make you laugh and cry in equal measure.  The animation is gorgeous, and really evokes a true sense of itself.  This is a very assured film.

While not flawless, this is definitely one of the most ambitious movies to come out in 2009, and it succeeded far more than it had any right to.  Infinitely interesting as an adaptation (the film adapts how the graphic novel works moreso than why it works), it will no doubt become a more rewarding and cherished experience with each viewing, much like the novel it's based on does with each read-through.  Visually arresting, and featuring not one, but two fantastic uses of Leonard Cohen songs, this is one of the unsung heroes of the year.

This is hands-down the best movie to see a theatrical release this year.  Jody Hill's brilliant, absolutely hilarious and dark character study is a thing that exists unto itself.  Starring Seth Rogen as the off-his-medication shopping mall security guard tracking down a flasher terrorizing the staff and patrons, OBSERVE AND REPORT goes into unexpected and dark places.  This is the most daring, original and balls-out film anyone is likely see for years to come.  If, like most audiences, you missed this in theatrical release, please do yourself a favor and see it.


Art Films for Kids: a review of WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX

2009 has been an amazing year for children's films.  Aside from the routine crap forced in theatres like G-FORCE and IMAGINE THAT, studios have put out films like MONSTERS VS. ALIENS, UP, and CORALINE.  Then, this Fall we were delivered two children's films by heavyweight artists, Spike Jonze's WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and Wes Anderson's THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX - both based on beloved books, and both very endearing movie-going experiences.  These films are amazing, and like Disney/Pixar's output and Henry Selick's CORALINE, they trust kids to grapple with subjects that may be slightly over their heads, but with which they need to grapple.


Golden Globe Nominations


The real showdown at the Golden Globes will be between Tarantino and Bigelow, two filmmakers at the peak of their abilities, and two of my favorites.

If there are any surprises in the nominations the Hollywood Foreign Press Association announced earlier today, it's that Sandra Bullock was nominated not once, but twice, and that I nearly vomited when I realized that. But then, I just remembered what a shit year it was for female roles and how almost any actress was relegated to rom-com performances (or, for Gabourey Sidibe, something a little...different.)

Anyway, I've been thinking about them all day, and I actually think there are some strong choices. I still haven't seen THE HURT LOCKER, A SERIOUS MAN, a handful of other smaller films (ANTICHRIST, A SIMPLE MAN, THE ROAD, THE WHITE RIBBON, BROKEN EMBRACES,) and the late-December/early-January wide release flicks (NINE, AVATAR, UP IN THE AIR, IT'S COMPLICATED,) but I will eventually; definitely before Oscar time. You can check out the full list at the HFPA website. I'm going to make some predictions based on what I think will happen, and reserve my own choices for a more informed post with the year-end stuff I've caught up on.

Without further ado, my predictions in a few categories:

Best Picture, Musical or Comedy - 500 DAYS OF SUMMER
This was the most inventive comedy I've seen all year. I think it runs a good chance of winning this, and nothing else. A shame, really.

Best Actor, Musical or Comedy - Michael Stuhlbarg (A SERIOUS MAN)
Haven't seen it, but the Globes sometimes like to give awards to actors no one has ever heard of. Stuhlbarg is supposedly quite good, which furthers him as my pick.

Best Actress, Musical or Comedy - Sandra Bullock (THE PROPOSAL)
Just because everyone else was so dismal and Bullock isn't really ever recognized for her 'acting.' I'll stick with SPEED and DEMOLITION MAN, thank you.

Best Picture, Drama - THE HURT LOCKER
I don't think there's a chance at anything else winning. It's walking away with every other critic's circle award.

Best Actor, Drama - George Clooney (UP IN THE AIR)
I think this will be the nod that both Clooney and Reitman get for the next few years. Then, they'll both win probably for something not as good. But, having not seen it, this could be the thing they win for not being so good anyway.

Best Actress, Drama - Gabourey Sidibe (PRECIOUS)
Already won it so many other places, and really there's not another female performance this year that comes close.

Best Animated Feature - THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX or UP I really can't make up my mind here what I think will win.

Best Foreign Language Film - THE WHITE RIBBON
Haneke is a striking filmmaker, that's for certain. I am anticipating this very much, especially given my own predilictions toward German history and filmmaking movements. Plus, it's really the only foreign selection garnering near-universal acclaim.

Supporting Actor - Christoph Waltz (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS)
There is no question in my mind he will take this award at the Globes and the Oscars. This was the best single performance I saw from anyone all year; period.

Supporting Actress - Penelope Cruz (NINE)
Gotta recognize NINE somehow, right, and why not with Ms. Cruz in the supporting role? If she loses, it all has to do with politics and making sure to spread the love around.

Best Director - Quentin Tarantino (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS) / Kathryn Bigelow (THE HURT LOCKER)
This category's really tough. Tarantino really nailed it this year, making a 'movie movie' through and through, and that may earn him points with the Hollywood critical acclaim crowd. However, by all accounts, Bigelow pulled off a similar feat with THE HURT LOCKER, and I would really like to see her win; she's one of my favorite directors, and I can't wait to see her film in the coming weeks. But, I can see this going either way...and if anyone else wins, well, it'll be because this vote was split.

Best Screenplay - Quentin Tarantino (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS)
Yeah, I think it's that good. Of course, look for Neil Blomkamp as the dark horse for DISTRICT 9.

What do you guys think? Let's discuss this, everyone. There will be more to come, after all!



In the hope of actually giving a much more thorough trek through my recent viewings, I write mini-reviews/thoughts/etc. of those movies I just don't have the time to devote to writing up as a longer piece. Ladies and gentlement, once again, I give you an installment of "Blurbs":

No one pulls of goofy and sophistcated from role to role quite like George Clooney.  Though it's now a routine comparison, he really is a modern actor capable of Cary Grant-like skill in both comedy and drama.  In THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS he plays an Army vet who tells a reporter on assignment in Iraq about his training in the New World Army, an elite psychic warfare unit that almost changed the course of U.S. military research (really).  He pulls out all the stops to craft a character composed of such sheer lunacy and composed calmness that he could only be real, and yet never quite shows whether he's really capable of astral projection or stopping hearts by concentrating hard enough, or just crazy.  Jeff Bridges is also fantastic as his signature "Dude-ness", and may as well be considered a version of that beloved Coen creation, but this time with goals and ambitions.

This movie kicks ass!  Sure, it's prototypical teen rebellions is now a bit tame, but how awesome is Helen Slater as Billie Jean?  And what other 80's teen flick makes an icon out of Joan of Arc as a model for female empowerment?  Directed by Matthew Robbins, and co-starring a young Christian Slater, THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN chronicles an outlaw group of kids (also including Yeardley Smith) who only want the money to repair a motor scooter damaged by a local sleazeball's kid.  Kick-ass!

DISTRICT B-13 (2004)
A fun piece of French action fluff, this Luc Besson-scripted tale follows a cop and an ex-con as they infiltrate a gang in Mega-dangerous Paris slum B-13, a district so bad it's been walled off from the rest of the ctiy.  The gang has stolen a bomb that's set to go off, and there's a subplot involving the con's sister at play, too.  The duo engage in gun battles, free running, and fistfights aplenty, all in typical Besson style.  Worth a look, as this is also the first collaboration with new Besson favorite Pierre Morel, who directed TAKEN and the upcoming FROM PARIS WITH LOVE.

This may be the apex of the current ultraviolent/monster/body mutilation subgenre of Japanese action/horror.  With sly wit, swimming pools full of blood, and the most fucked-up underground prostitution ring I've ever seen, TOKYO GORE POLICE tells the story of Ruka, an officer in the Tokyo Police Corporation, and top-notch "engineer" killer.  The engineers are a race of human/mutant hybrids that, when wounded, can regrow their felled body parts as deadly weapons - all of which are hilarious, ultra-gory, and usually disturbing in some way.  I can't say I'd recommend it to everybody, but I thought it was fun, and if it sounds like your thing, check it out.

Tobias Schneebaum, an openly gay writer/painter/illustrator/anthropologist from New York's East Village, is the subject of this pretty fantastic documentary.  Throughout his life, Schneebaum sought out "primitive" cultures and lived with them - prominently the Asmat people of New Guinea.  Throughout the film, there runs the current of events that happened in Peru in the mid-Sixties, when Schneebaum disappeared into the Amazon and emerged a year later having participated in one tribe's raid on another, and his subsequent eating of the conquered men's flesh.  The film isn't overly concerned with cannibalism, though it does crop up from time to time, and instead is entirely focused on Schneebaum now, currently a man in his 70s, and his journeys back to the places he loved so much as a younger man.

Underrated: SPARTAN

David Mamet's 2004 thriller SPARTAN is so underrated it might be the least-seen absolutely amazing movie I can think of.  In hyperbole, for every 20 people I ask about it, maybe one or two even knows what I'm talking about.  Seriously, though, the people who have seen SPARTAN know it is one of the most amazing achievements in a stellar career few will ever rival.

The film, like much of Mamet's work, assumes a lot of its audience.  For example, it doesn't explain every single plot point, instead opting to trust the audience to follow events and use context to extrapolate what's happening.  This is a rarity in most Hollywood-produced films, and SPARTAN isn't a film where nothing happens that needs explanation, either.  It's a twisted, convoluted road to travel down, full of red herrings and double-crosses; trade-mark Mamet.

The plot involves a black ops agent, Scott, played by Val Kilmer riding his mid-decade come-back, who is given the task of finding the daughter of a high-level government official.  Not once in the first thirty minutes is it even clear whose daughter it is, but when talk of the Secret Service enters the picture, it's pretty clear who is at stake.  That's the trust in the audience it has, not overt or explicit, but enough information to have a full grasp of the situation, as long as one is willing to think about things the same way characters are being asked to in order to make conclusions.

The film is full of amazing performances.  Here, Ed O'Neill steals the show.

The cast is filled with a ton of fine actors, some Mamet regulars, like William H. Macy, and others who I wish did more work with the director, like Ed O'Neill, who steals early scenes in a too-little yet just right role, and Kilmer himself, who probably hadn't turned in a performance this good since he played Jim Morrison for Oliver Stone.  Also of note is a pre-fame Kristen Bell as the kidnapped girl. 

The film's visual style is a hybrid of genres, with lush reds and cool blues dominating almost every frame.

Music, cinematography - fantastic.  The film is awash in hues of reds and blues, creating a hybrid visual aesthetic that's somewhere between spy thriller and film noir.  The world Kilmer's spy inhabits is filled with shady deals and slimy characters, after all.  The music emphasises the blending of genres, with horn parts and staccato drums throughout, never quite settling into which mode it wants to be in, and is really a great score when put with the imagery.

The audience is involved in the mystery itself thanks to great writing, and a superb trust in the audience.

I love little things about the dialogue.  Something about everyone asking, over and over, "Where's the girl?" to anyone who may have remotely been involved or know anything has a kind of charm to it; a poetry of phrasing and emphasis, maybe.  And then there's the scene where, trekking through the last known wherabouts of the girl at a club and Kilmer and Derek Luke interrogate a suspect in an alley behind the place.  There is a brief tussle with Kilmer breaking the guy's arm. 

Scott : (to Luke) Take out your knife. (to suspect) Where's the girl, Jerry?  (no answer; to Luke) Take his eye out.  (brief pause, Derek Luke looks at him unbelieving) You bet your life.

This is intense stuff, and much of the action in the film is handled in conjunction with people talking, something Mamet is known for.  The thrill of the language is just a big as that of the events happening onscreen, and propels the film into the outer spheres and makes it into the magical wonder that it is.  If you still haven't seen SPARTAN, do so.  I guarantee one of the most rewarding film experiences of the last decade, if not ever.


2012: Disaster Porn for the Masses

Special effects dominate much of the film, but they are thrilling.

Since 1994's INDEPENDENCE DAY, director Roland Emmerich has been the pre-eminent destructor of the planet Earth on film.  If there's a national landmark - or even an international one - chances are he has destroyed it, possibly in multiple movies.  After this Fall's 2012, is there anything else left to destroy?  And if there is, why do it?  Isn't this, the mother of all disaster movies, enough?  Well, I hope so, because he's maybe made the best of his crop.  Yes, after INDEPENDENCE DAY, GODZILLA (1998), THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW, and 10,000 BC, he has made a film that not only is watchable, but also gets its own ridiculousness.

Anyone remotely familiar with the movie's premise knows it's about the theory that the ancient Mayan calendar predicts the end of the world, on 12-21-12.  As per usual, there's a large cast of characters that revolve around an intertwine with two central stories:  that of an average family's race to escape the apocalypse, and of a scientist struggling to make the government's plans for survival more populist and less greedy.  But the real star of the show isn't the plot - or even any of the characters - but the wholesale destruction of Earth as we know it.

Yellowstone erupts in a fury, and the heroes narrowly escape once again.

In mind-boggling graphic detail, California falls into the Pacific, first seen at ground-level and then via panoramic overhead.  Yellowstone becomes the planet's largest active volcano.  The Pacific Ocean floods the Himilayas.  Vegas is destroyed.  It's all thrilling, if a bit silly.

Continuing with his comeback year, Woody Harrelson steals the entire movie with only about six or seven minutes of screen time.  He plays a conspiracy theorist/radio host.  I'll allow you to extrapolate how awesome he is from there.

Harrelson and Cusack spar - Harrelson wins with a K.O.

The other actors all turn in relatively weak work.  John Cusack is barely passable, and Chiwetel Ejiofor struggles to keep things grounded.  Amanda Peet would be praise-worthy, but she's given almost nothing to do, so I can't really qualify her in my mind because she's so utterly wasted as a potentially interesting presence.  But, again, no one really expects acting to be a strong point, do they?

Underused and underwritten.  Amanda Peet gives the best performance of the main cast, but isn't given enough to do.

So, in short, maybe Emmerich should hang up the disaster urge.  I seriously doubt he'll top the sheer thrill of this one.  Maybe he'll pursue more "serious" Sci-Fi like STARGATE, or move on to try something different, like he did with THE PATRIOT.  Either way, 2012 thoroughly destroys everything, so there's really nothing left to keep him here.


So, realistically, I don't have the time to write extensively about every movie I see. However, I thought I'd share with you my thoughts on a few things I've watched recently (for the first time, or just my latest viewing of it) that struck me as interesting or pleased me in some way.  Here it is, another installment of "Blurbs."

Clive Barker's HELLRAISER (1987)
The first (and still best) entry into the ongoing exploits of the demonic Cenobites.  HELLRAISER follows Kirsty Cotton, whose dead uncle Frank has come back from eternal torment and attempts to take her father's identity, as well as his wife.  It's a horrific story of love across dimensions and the pleasures derived from painful experience (physically and emotionally.)  Doug Bradley has spent two decades portraying Pinhead, the leader of the Cenobites who exposes those who solve the Lament Configuration puzzle box to the pleasures of the flesh.  Still chilling and completely uncompromising, Clive Barker's HELLRAISER is a true masterwork of the macabre.

A real shitfest from Roland Emmerich, which I find myself compulsively drawn to despite my dislike for it.  There's something compelling I just can't explain - like passing a car accident and absolutely having to slow down and look.  No one turns in a performance that's even remotely convincing, despite Matthew Broderick's best attempts.  But, the special effects are convincing enough for the time, and when the giant lizard finally makes it onscren, there are moments that are almost worth all the crap leading up to and surrounding them.  Watch at your own risk, or, like me, for much-too-frequent morbid curiosity.

I recently picked this up for $16 bucks from the Criterion Collection, having seen it some years back during my initial Herzog obsession.  A brilliant portrait of the uncompromising German director's four year attempt to film FITZCARRALDO.  The centerpiece: pulling a 350-ton steamship over a mountain without using models or special effects just for authenticity's sake.  This is probably the best "making of" doc ever made, and as valid an exploration into the obsessive needs of a burdened genius as any of the films Herzog himself was making at this time.

I love H.P. Lovecraft, but this film adaptation sucks.  I actually fell asleep a bit myself, and there's really only about 30 seconds of squid-monster badassery - and even that sucks.  Stuart Gordon is still the only competent adaptor of Lovecraft, I guess.  Check out his DAGON and RE-ANIMATOR films, or even his MASTERS OF HORROR episode "Dreams in the Witch House."


4 Performances: Viggo Mortensen

Viggo Mortensen is the greatest living American actor that no one in America cares about.  After struggling through a lot of false-starts early in his career, including a so-so remake of VANISHING POINT for television and opposite Michael Douglas and Gwyneth Paltrow in A PERFECT MURDER, he finally broke in a big way when cast as Aragorn in director Peter Jackson's epic adaptation of LORD OF THE RINGS.  He has a new movie (finally) coming out this week, Cormac McCarthy's THE ROAD, directed by John Hillcoat, who also made one of the best modern Westerns, THE PROPOSITION, so I thought I'd give a run-down of some of my favorite Viggo roles from the past decade.

A vehicle for Christopher Walken, who stars as the angel Gabriel, sent to Earth to nab the soul of a child that will end the war raging in Heaven, this dark fantasy / horror first caught my attention because it was pretty intense.  While some may find it hokey now (it was a bit then, too), the film boasts a powerful cast, with a personal favorite of mine, Elias Koteas, playing the down and out Thomas Daggett, a man who must stop Gabriel from fulfilling the prophecy.  Mortensen makes an appearance as Lucifer, and almost steals the show from Walken and company; no easy task, I assure you.

Mortensen carries this trilogy on his shoulders, and handles it brilliantly.  While the films are about the journeys of many characters, Aragorn is really the thread that holds everything together, growing from an outcast into rightful heir to the throne of man in Middle Earth.  This series put him on the map, and oddly enough, a sex symbol to nerd and non-nerd alike, who were down one way or another for his rough-and-tumble portrayal of the wandering prodigal son.

After LORD OF THE RINGS, Mortensen worked with director David Cronenberg on two extremely affecting films, the low-key A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE, and the London-set crime film EASTERN PROMISES.  As Tom Stall, the main character in HISTORY, Mortensen plays a man whose past is catching up with him, and is threatening to rip his family apart at the seams.  HISTORY is a meditation on the eruption of violence as it permeates everyday life, from the instant, bloody death of someone in a coffee shop to the ramifications of violence as possible ingrained human behavior.  Switching gears a bit, Viggo plays Nikolai in EASTERN PROMISES, an up and coming gangster in the Russian Mafia.  The film still bears Cronenberg's indelible fingerprints, and when the violence erupts, its like an explosion in an otherwise quiet world where no one really says what they mean, and no one speaks up for fear of their own quick demise.  The centerpiece of the film is an attempted hit on Nikolai while he's in a Turkish bath.  Mortensen plays the extremely violent edge-of-your seat fight scene completely nude, uncompromising in his insistence on authenticity as an actor where others may have opted for a less revealing approach.

Ed Harris's traditionally paced and styled Western may have put a lot of viewers off, but it was a great vehicle for an engaging story and some great acting from Mortensen, who carries around one of the biggest shotguns I've ever seen as Everett Hitch, sidekick and companion to Harris's Virgil Cole.  The gun - Mortensen's idea - becomes an extension of Everett, as much a part of his character as any other mannerism an actor might bring to the role.  Mortensen plays Hitch as loyal, but always willing to do the right thing, even if it means sacrificing something he holds dear, which is really what most Western heroes are all about.


In the hope of actually giving a much more thorough trek through my recent viewings, I write mini-reviews/thoughts/etc. of those movies I just don't have the time to devote to writing up as a longer piece. Once again, it's time for, "Blurbs":

A fairly standard documentary about the "Ozploitation" period between the late-60's and mid-70's that saw Australian genre cinema pushed to the fore.  It's a bit too big a task for a feature to do justice to the sheer amount of material on hand, but interviews with Australian film critics and filmmakers, as well as frequent commentary from grindhouse aficianado Quentin Tarantino, really elevate the importance and urgency of the era as a period of discovery and innovation.  And, finally, it sheds some light on the completely awesome ROAD GAMES with Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis, so hopefully people who watch this and haven't seen that movie before will pick it up.

Visually this is a stunning film.  Reeds waving in the wind have never been this beautiful, or conveyed so many internalized feelings: lust, desire, jealousy, fear, etc.  And, once the demon mask makes its appearance, it is a mystical wonder to behold, with even the mother-in-law who dons it moving in unnatural ways.  A great movie that deals in tragedy.

A pretty funny movie that really gets bogged down in plot mechanics that, while amusing, sort of put a damper on the proceedings.  But, there are plenty of inspired gags, and the first 40 minutes or so are absolutely hilarious.  Also, Ricky Gervais has gigantic balls.  Who else would slip the notion that religion can only exist in a world where people can lie to one another into a mainstream Hollywood comedy?

Review: "Bad Romance" by Lady Gaga

The unlikely combination of early Goldfrapp's glam-infused freak-pop and Peaches' overtly sexual content and performance, is there a better pop song/video combination this year than Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance"?  The song itself is a force to be reckoned with, propelled forward by a driving beat sure to keep any body moving, and with clever yet simple lyrics that interplay perfectly with Lady Gaga's status as a one-woman, no bullshit fashionista.  It's like Madonna, but with genuine songwriting talent.

The video is a futuristic pop brothel-by-way-of-sex-slavery, as if designed by Guillermo del Toro and directed by Stanley Kubrick's slightly more hyperkinetic, but equally cold and distant offspring, if either one of them were a pure pop connoisseur.  After the song's bridge ("I want your love / I want your revenge / I want your love / I don't wanna be friends") the video kicks into overload for the final push to the end, with Gaga donning an ultra revealing red suit and pulling off some simply amazing choreography.  It doesn't help that from the bridge onward she looks hotter than she's ever looked before, and sounds amazing, with layer upon layer of vocal track riding high atop a beat that has now fully realized its potential, and rushing forward to its very last moment.  Amazing.


In the past few years there has been a rash of "found footage" horror films, from the J.J. Abrams-produced CLOVERFIELD to horror maestro George A. Romero's DIARY OF THE DEAD.  The modern spate of these films comes from the parameters of experimentation successfully explored by THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT a decade ago: create a monstrous opposition to characters fleshed out entirely by their presence on screen, utilizing only their viewpoint - the camera - to put a distinct subjective mark on the developing events.  Some are small snapshots of epic-sized events, as in CLOVERFIELD and DIARY, while others deal in specific afflictions, like the apartment building outbreak in [REC] (remade in the U.S., well, I might add, as QUARANTINE) or the documentary crew's supernatural encounters in BLAIR WITCH.

Small-scale documentation of large-scale disaster in CLOVERFIELD.

The found footage in all these films relates "truth" to the audience.  The aesthetic choice of first-person video or newsgrade HD-tape to tell the story is, after all, something we are used to from our own exposure to home videos and the nightly news.  Its image is grainier, usually a bit darker, and somehow seems less artificial than film, especially the often well-lit, detached, third-person omniscient narratives of mainstream filmmaking.  Interestingly enough, the lighting and camera movement is often less natural in these films than in any other type of film, with light having to be filtered and created in various locations, and the camera movement much more pronounced than even regular head movement, all to produce the illusion of how things really look.



In the hope of actually giving a much more thorough trek through my recent viewings, I write mini-reviews/thoughts/etc. of those movies I just don't have the time to devote to writing up as a longer piece. Ladies and gentlement, once again, I give you an installment of "Blurbs":

I was waiting a couple years to see this one, and finally I get to say that it was pretty good. As an anthology film of sorts, albeit by a single director, several stories are interlinked at various points throughout Halloween night. There aren't any really big moments, but it's enjoyable over all, with several small thigns really shining through. In particular, I was fond of a story invovling some kids pulling a prank on an unpopular girl, Rhonda the Retard. The atmosphere works, and the payoff is kinda wicked. Ditto the opening story about a school principal's distasteful plan for improving his school. Recommended if you like this sort of thing, or are just in the mood to watch something fun and light for a 'scary movie' night or something.  Plus, Anna Paquin (see pic) in a Red Riding Hood outfit!

Rubbish. See INSIDE instead for modern pregnancy horror. Or ROSEMARY'S BABY. Or IT'S ALIVE, even. Just skip GRACE.

Yes, the Marx Brothers resort to black face, but I don't think it's mocking the thirty or so black faces on prominent display during the musical number. Insensitive, yes, but it was the '30s, and they're Jews. Regardless, this is one of their best and funniest, with all their stock characters at their best. A must-see.

I really should watch this movie more often than I do, probably, being as it's the foundation of the rape-revenge sub-genre, but it had literally been years until a couple weeks back. Simply masterful. This is my favorite Bergman - von Sydow's perfect as always. Haunting and unforgettable. Too bad so many people will never bother to watch this since it's in black and white. Oh, and gorgeous B&W at that.


4 Performances: Ed O'Neill

If ever there was an underrated actor that gets such good reviews, it's Ed O'Neill. Recently, he returned to TV in MODERN FAMILY, a show that's really, really funny and I hope sticks around for quite a while. In honor of his return to television, here are my favorite Ed O'Neill performances.

DRAGNET (2003)
In 2003, creator/producer Dick Wolf, the mind behind the ever addictive LAW & ORDER, retooled Jack Webb's classic detective show DRAGNET for the new millenium, and quite successfully. Ed O'Neill played Webb's signature role of Joe Friday with heft and gravitas, showing plenty of dramatic chops and easily asserting his interpretation of the character as a worthy endeavor. O'Neill had great chemistry with Ethan Embry, who was cast as his partner, Frank Smith, but for some reason, most likely in an effort to grab more ratings, the show changed a lot after the first season, and instead of gaining its own momentum, became another bland copy-cat procedural featuring a large cast, and pushing Joe Friday to the back of the pack while eliminating Smith altogether. Renamed LA DRAGNET, the new show just didn't have what it would take to survive, and was cancelled only halfway through its second season. The first season is wonderful, though, and definitely worth checking out.

WAYNE'S WORLD 1 & 2 (1992, 1993)
While only making small cameos in both films as Glen, the manager at Stan Mikita's Donuts. With memorable asides, O'Neill steals the spotlight from Wayne and Garth for just brief moments, but with such inspired line delivery and sociopathic and depressive tendencies that he gets huge laughs, and ends up with two of the most quotable bits of both movies. From Wayne's World 2: "So Wayne, I hear you're putting on some kind of concert. That's good. People need to be entertained, they need the distraction. I wish to God that someone would be able to block out the voices in my head for five minutes, the voices that scream, over and over again: 'Why do they come to me to die? Why do they come to me to die?'"

DUTCH (1991)
In one of his best film roles (I also love LITTLE GIANTS), O'Neill partners for the first time with Ethan Embry, who is Doyle Standish, a stuck-up rich kid who really sticks it to unwanted boyfriend of his mom, Dutch Dooley. DUTCH is a road trip movie about growing up and getting over the bad things, and the script by John Hughes features all of his hallmarks, ranging from wordplay to slapstick, all wrapped up in a comedy that really grows on you. The character of Dutch may seem like a typical foil for Ed O'Neill, who at the time was in the middle of his long run as Al Bundy on the hit TV show MARRIED...WITH CHILDREN, but he really makes the character sweet and charming while bringing all of the uncouth qualities of his Bundy character.

On one of the longest running sitcoms on television, Ed O'Neill is so good that he is forever associated with the role of Al Bundy, a miserable shoe salesman who loathes his family and his very existence. O'Neill, who had heretofore played a lot of cop and robber roles, pulls out all the stops in creating a character so despicable, angry and pathetic all at once, that he ends up being...well, sort of endearing. Al Bundy is who everyone wishes they could be at one point or another, verbally abusing anything and everything that gets on his nerves or gets in his way. Al is the modern man; frustrated by his loss of dominion over his home, and pissed off at the way a man isn't respected anymore, with the wife taking all his money, and the kids running rampant in every way possible. But, after everything, he really does love his family, and sticks up for them when he must, and doesn't let anyone else treat them like scum. The Bundy's are fine for ridicule within their own clan, but outside derision is not accepted. Ed O'Neill's character is America, in all its twisted, proud, ugly, multi-faceted modern glory. Maybe that's why the show remains popular and absolutely hilarious to this day.


PASSING SHLOCK: New Horror, Innovation, and Putting One Over on the Mainstream

There is always a slew of new horror films ready to make a cheap buck at the cineplex, and audiences eat them up. So many exist, in fact, that a few films have recently snuck into wide release (none financially successful, I might point out) that, were it not for their questionable genre pedigree, would have never seen the light of day, and which would have easily passed in an arthouse if they weren't so defiantly "genre" in their setup and conventions. Up for consideration, I offer Rob Zombie's HALLOWEEN 2, Karyn Kusama and Diablo Cody's JENNIFER'S BODY, and Sam Raimi's brilliant DRAG ME TO HELL. All three films, with varying degrees of success, use and manipulate genre conventions to unnerve the viewer, and they do so with such slickness that it sort of passes unnoticed, leaving mainstream audiences used to simple, clichè-filled cookie cutter horror sort of satisfied, but scratching their heads at what the hell it was they just saw.

Rob Zombie is a director who is definitely an auteur of exploitation. Unnerving, raw and brutal are the trademark adjectives for his two best films, THE DEVIL'S REJECTS and HALLOWEEN 2. For all the psychobabble and theories about familial relations written about in countless papers and articles as the underpinning subtext of all horror, Zombie's films are almost completely, exclusively about familial relations and generational psychosis, masquerading as exploitation schlock for the masses.
Consider his interpretation of Michael Myers, and that character's arc from film to film. Ultimately, Myers is a child trying, in his own way, to please his mother and find his way in the world. I don't think this development is too far of a stretch, especially given its place in slasher film history, and it's easy for an audience to accept. Where Zombie sneaks one in, however, has more to do wth actual content and visual thematics, specifically the heavy allusions in the sequel, which pushes just as many buttons and boundaries as his earlier film, DEVIL'S REJECTS.

The content of HALLOWEEN 2 I'm referring to, and which people in cineplexes seem to be having trouble with, is the "white horse" motif. Providing a description of what the appearance of a white horse in dreams or nightmares means in analytical terms right at the beginning of the film, Zombie sets up H2 to be explicitly concerned with dreams, often obscuring whether or not Myers himself is even committing the brutal killings. Certainly, Myers gets a lot of screentime, but often the design of the film is hazy and smoke-filled, much like in the multiple dream sequences with the horse and Myers's mommy dearest. What this does is create a sense of uncertainty as to the reality of the film, and it has varying degrees of success.

Along with that, Laurie Strode, the Final Girl in the films, played by Scout Taylor Compton, is portrayed as increasingly unhinged and wreckless, just as likely a culprit as a killer whose head was blown off at the end of the last film. And then there's that wonderful, clichèd final shot of Laurie in the cell at the end, finalizing her descent into madness. Zombie isn't afraid to raise questions and leave them unanswered. Laurie may have imagined everything and committed the crimes herself, but there's no certainty. Is Laurie simply inheriting madness through genetics? Is it due to the traumatic events she goes through herself in both movies that leads her to the hospital? Is Michael even "undead" at all, leaving Laurie as the most likely culprit? Boldly, the film operates in much the same way as an art-house psycho-drama, though filled wall to wall with gruesome and brutal violence, and featuring one of the most intense sound designs I think I've ever heard. Zombie's pushing forward with his exploitation art-house, but sadly the audiences don't seem to be there from either side.

Sam Raimi is interested in pushing boundaries in ways completely different than Zombie, but with similar subversive results. With DRAG ME TO HELL, he continues his fascination with genre-bending, blending horror and broad comedy into something wholly singular. Unlike Zombie's visceral approach to undercutting genre conventions by juxtaposing slasher films with their implied social context and theoretical meanings, Raimi seeks to point out the absurd moments of horror by making them patently absurd through slapstick and overt camera moves. Some may argue that this was already pioneered with his own EVIL DEAD 2, which is stylistically similar, but his inspiration for DRAG ME TO HELL's comedy is more Tex Avary than Moe Howard.

Consider a scene in the middle of the film where Christine, the afflicted heroine, encounters her gypsy tormentor in the shed behind her house. While being strangled by the gypsy woman, Christine is able to grab an ice skate and use it to make an anvil, suspended from the ceiling of the shed via rope and pulley, fall down and crush the old woman. Only in a cartoon universe could such a scene make sense, and Raimi's sense of horror is the absurdity of the situation being put out front, in full view, for everyone to see. Yes, it's absurd that this woman came out of nowhere to pull a jump-scare out of you, but isn't it absurd all of the coincidences that usually get rid of monsters in our movies? Is the anvil trick really any different than the last-minute escapes from Freddy or Jason just as they are about to kill their final victim? Of course not, though unlike those instances, Raimi's version of the situation could just as easily come from a Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd short. The earlier fight in the parking garage is equally as absurdist and disturbing, with Christine being gummed and drooled on, and cursed for not offering a loan extension to the elderly woman who will soon curse her and doom her soul.

And then there's the sèance toward the end, where the possessed man, after a couple of pretty intense moments, breaks up the situation by dancing a jig while floating above the table with flames rising underneath him. The clear inspiration? Daffy Duck, of course, who often breaks up his own intense arguments with absurdist asides and remarks, or by simply acting, well, daffy. This is Raimi trying to find out how far he can push audience limitations in form, especially since the horrific is rarely the comedic, creating a film that zig-zags back and forth more than slams together to create a single tone, a là SHAUN OF THE DEAD. The closest the horrific comes to being the joke itself is the director's insistence on putting his actors through hell by seeing just how much fluid he can soak them in at any given time. Alison Lohman, as Christine, is doused by bile, vomit, drool, muddy water, and blood by the end of the film, literally representing the trials and tribulations of the traditional horror heroine as disgusting and vile.

And then, we come to JENNIFER'S BODY, easily the most divisive film up for discussion. In reality, it combines a bit of both of Zombie and Raimi's films' ambitions, though I think it's a bit less successful than either of the other two. Anyone who knows me personally is well aware of my strong dislike JUNO - particularly Diablo Cody's hipster-lite, pop-culture-reference laden dialogue. I'm all for writers having distinctive voices and styles that shape their every project, like David Milch (DEADWOOD, NYPD BLUE) or Woody Allen, bu something about Cody's script just rang false, with everyone in the whole damned town sounding like an idealized version of what a sixteen year-old thinks adults talk about and sound like when discussing adult things. It was lame, and inhibited the few positive things I found in the movie.

But here, we have a movie that makes all of that make sense, taking place in high school, featuring a bitch as a main character who eats people (literally), and isn't afraid of the corny side of genre fare. In short, JENNIFER'S BODY is a giant leap forward for Cody stylistically, and as a horror film, it's pretty fun, and the dialogue doesn't get in the way, mainly since we expect high school students to act self-absorbed and speak in ways that don't quite make sense outside of their social strata.

The main leap forward for JENNIFER'S BODY as a horror film, though, is its insistence on toying with genre conventions and following through with them while attempting to make the personalities of the characters the parodic targets. Jennifer and Needy are strong archetypes for the two major personalities in horror: the Final Girl, and the generic victim. By making Jennifer, the victim, turn out to be the monster as well, the loops in regular sexual interpretation are filled in and twisted until their unrecognizable. How can the sexualized sacrifice be the horror that must be stopped and still make sense in masculine/feminine terms? Well, apparantly, by obscuring the sexual impulses of all characters into some sort of amalgamation of bi- and homo-sexual tendencies, where nothing makes sense, and social class doesn't really factor into any of it. Jennifer's choice of morsels stems from nothing more than convenience for her condition, and the demon inside her is likewise not picky about who she kills and consumes. The killing boys motif, it turns out, is out of simple convenience, for who would ever question why a boy would go off by himself with and throw himself in the path of a monster like Jennifer.

Kusama and Cody innovate the generic monster in this way, making the motives and impulses difficult to read, and simultaneously obscuring and highlighting the subtext of horror films in general. Not unlike Zombie or Raimi. I'll likely return to all of these films at some point in the future, but for now, I'll leave it at this thought: Why, when Hollywood is full of bankrupt ideas and ready to funnel out money for the next remake, are these films even getting made? HALLOWEEN 2 seems most obvious, as it is a remake of sorts, though only briefly, but what about DRAG ME TO HELL and JENNIFER'S BODY. These films are the serious works of seriously talented people who somehow pulled one over on the suits who would never greenlight ambitious, complex retoolings of genre fiction were it not for their names and bankability. And obviously, given all three films' low box office receipts, the audience for these ambitious undertakings are not in the mainstream. Could these be marketed toward a more arthouse-prone audience?
After all, the French have a stranglehold on the arthouse right now, producing visceral, gory, ultraviolent horror that seems to be playing well at international film festivals, and gets plenty of recognition for the advances in genre from the likes of Film Comment and academia in general. Until American horror quits being underrated as a genre fit only for numb-skulled idiots who want to watch the latest FINAL DESTINATION film (which there's nothing wrong with, fundamentally, mind you), these films will continue to fall by the wayside, finding their audience on their own terms, and with no help from either the mainstream or the serious cinephile.