Monday, December 27, 2010

My top 10 non-2010 movies of 2010

I saw more than 400 movies for the first time this year, probably only a little more than half of which were actually released in 2010. So as I did last year and the year before, I'm putting together a second top 10 list, aside from the more attention-getting one of my favorite new movies of the year (which you can see in the next Las Vegas Weekly). Here then is my list of the top 10 movies I saw for the first time in 2010 that came out in previous years.

1. Breakfast at Tiffany's (Blake Edwards, 1961) I actually got the chance to see this movie in a theater, as part of a vintage film series at one of the local Regal Cinemas. I didn't really have expectations either way -- mostly it was the most convenient movie in the series for me to go see with a friend -- but I was so surprised and delighted with how sophisticated, clever, stylish and moving this film is, with absolutely terrific performances from Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard. It's so casually complex about sexuality, coyly but clearly referring to the way its main characters trade sex for money and other benefits. And it effortlessly captures that excitement of being young and living in a city; it made me want to move to New York in 1961. Yes, Mickey Rooney plays a horribly racist Japanese caricature, and, yes, much of the explicitness of Truman Capote's novel has been toned down. It's still a fantastic movie, a wonderful romance and a shining example of the best of the time period.

2. The Letter (William Wyler, 1940) I watched 30-plus Bette Davis movies this year for a project that's still ongoing, so I could probably have made this list into my top 10 Bette Davis movies of 2010. The Letter certainly would have topped that list, but it places deservedly among all the movies I saw this year. It's a masterfully shot, expertly constructed noir with Davis at her devious best, playing a haughty plantation owner's wife defending herself from a murder charge. Wyler (working from a play by W. Somerset Maugham) weaves a complex story full of shady characters and shifting allegiances, and he uses the Malaysian setting effectively to portray the perils of colonization. Read more in my original post.

3. Rock N' Roll High School (Allan Arkush, 1979) There will eventually be a full piece on this movie, which I watched for a project that I am still working on. For now I will say that, like Breakfast at Tiffany's, this movie is very evocative of a certain time and place, although it's more of a generic time of life (high school) and location (the suburbs) than something concrete. It's just an infectiously fun movie about teenage rebellion and thinking that your favorite band is the most important thing in the world and having debilitating crushes on classmates, and it's set in this kind of stylized fantasy world that amplifies and personifies the extremes of teenage emotions. Plus, P.J. Soles is great as Riff Randell, and the Ramones rock, too.

4. The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges, 1942) I'm consistently amazed at the kind of weird, off-kilter storytelling Sturges was able to throw into Hollywood studio films in the 1940s. This movie subverts expectations at every turn, getting its leads (played wonderfully by Claudette Colbert and Joel McCrea) together at the beginning, splitting them apart and then not forcing them to fall in love again but instead demonstrating how hard they work to keep each other happy. It's goofy and funny and never predictable, another demonstration of Sturges' boundless creativity. Read some more in my post about Claudette Colbert.

5. A Christmas Carol (Brian Desmond Hurst, 1951) Of all the Christmas movies I watched for my Christmas in July feature, a version of A Christmas Carol is pretty low on the list of what I would have expected to be my favorite. But this austere and surprisingly affecting version starring Alastair Sim is not only the best of the Dickens adaptations I watched, it's also the best of all the Christmas movies I wrote about. No matter how familiar you are with this story, you'll get something out of Sim's deeply felt performance as Scrooge, stripping away everything that has made the character into a cartoon over the years and showing him as a damaged, sad and pitiable man. Read more in my original post.

6. 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom, 2002) There's a full piece on this one forthcoming as well, with more on its manic visual style, self-referential writing and performances and giddy celebration of the Manchester music scene of the 1980s and '90s. Winterbottom is one of those directors whose greatest strength/weakness is working in pretty much every genre imaginable, but 24 Hour plays to his best instincts, with a funny, hyperactive lead performance from Steve Coogan and just the right balance of snark and reverence in regard to its subject, music impresario Tony Wilson.

7. The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941) Hey, it's another William Wyler-directed Bette Davis movie. Like The Letter, The Little Foxes features Davis as a gleefully nasty schemer, although in this movie she's just one of several unscrupulous characters, all part of a toxic Southern family in 1900. The writing, by Lillian Hellman based on her play, is complex and unconventional, and Wyler's direction makes the stage-based material into something dynamic and cinematic. Davis always excelled at playing characters who are compelling in their awfulness, and in The Little Foxes she digs into one of her best. Read more in my original post.

8. Mumsy, Nanny, Sonny and Girly (Freddie Francis, 1970) I had no idea what to expect from this weird British cult horror movie when I volunteered to review its long-awaited DVD release. But it totally transfixed me with its surreal, unnerving take on the horror-movie staple of the demented family, and its complete lack of explanation or back story is chilling in the best way. Part sadistic horror movie, part social satire, the movie toys with its audience the same way its characters toy with their kidnapped victim. With creepy performances and a moody, evocative style, Girly really deserves a rediscovery now that it's on DVD. Read more in my DVD review.

9. Thirst (Park Chan-wook, 2009) When I saw Park's fanboy favorite Oldboy, I think I had heard too much hype, and I was impressed but not wowed. I came to Thirst without the same preconceptions, and I was drawn in much more effectively. The unconventional vampire story goes in all sorts of unexpected directions, and Park takes on over-the-top violence, severe crises of faith and all-consuming love with equal verve. The lead performances from Song Kang-ho and Kim Ok-bin are every bit as intense as the direction, and the whole movie has a manic sense of danger that never lets up. It's totally insane, in a good way.

10. That Evening Sun (Scott Teems, 2009) I probably would have had this on my 2009 best-of list if it had made it to Vegas theaters in time, but as it stands I didn't get a chance to see it until it opened here in February. It's a lovely little character study with a great (and rare) lead performance from Hal Holbrook, playing an irascible old farmer who refuses to leave his land even when his son leases it to a new family. Teems paints an evocative portrait of the South as a region poised between tradition and modernity, and Mia Wasikowksa, who had a hell of a year in 2010 (with both Alice in Wonderland and The Kids Are All Right), does nice supporting work as a teen who tentatively bonds with Holbrook's old coot. Read more in my review.

Honorable mentions: 13 Going On 30 (Gary Winick, 2004); The Catered Affair (Richard Brooks, 1956); Christmas Evil (Lewis Jackson, 1980); In This Our Life (John Huston, 1942)

Monday, December 13, 2010

Triskaidekaphilia: 13 Hours in a Warehouse

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

I watched 13 Hours in a Warehouse last week at Las Vegas' great Sci Fi Center, as part of a sadly under-attended double feature showcasing indie horror actress Rachel Grubb (whom I also interviewed). I skipped out on the second feature, Terror Overload, but I found 13 Hours fitfully entertaining and occasionally suspenseful, albeit far too clumsy to work consistently. For her part, Grubb is effectively creepy as one of three female ghosts who haunt an old warehouse where a gang of thieves is hiding out.

The acting by the leads could generously be called uneven, and early scenes in which the group sits around and trades pop-culture banter like third-rate Tarantino characters are pretty painful. The bluster never quite seems real, and it's hard to buy these guys as genuinely dangerous thugs. But when they start getting scared and turning on each other, the movie becomes a lot more believable, and the actors are able to pull off those emotions much more convincingly than they're able to sell writer-director Dav Kaufman's stilted dialogue. It helps that there is a genuinely spooky atmosphere to a lot of the scenes, thanks to the empty, run-down location and some simple but evocative camera work.

Kaufman uses a cool effect on the ghosts, making them flicker and stutter like poorly tracked images on old VHS tapes (which eventually figure into the back story). It's a unique and immediate way to convey otherworldliness (it owes something to The Ring, but is handled in a very different way). He frames one shot with tiny nooses in the foreground that circle the faces of the characters in the background, and generally uses his visuals to indicate the danger of what's going on without drawing too much attention to it. You don't expect subtlety in a movie like this, and I appreciated it. The plotting is too slapdash, the dialogue is too awkward, and the acting is too wooden. But the style makes up for some of that, which puts 13 Hours slightly ahead of a good number of its direct-to-DVD horror counterparts.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Heroes for Hire #1

I sort of lost track of writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning's Guardians of the Galaxy series, which seems to have morphed from an ongoing book into various miniseries that form part of a neverending Marvel cosmic crossover story. But for the time that it was running on its own, I found it pretty enjoyable, a solid old-school superhero team-up book with a variety of interesting characters and a range of ongoing subplots that were given time to develop. The only drawbacks were the ever-changing art teams and the necessity of reading several other series in order to keep up with some of the plot points (two of my biggest annoyances with mainstream superhero books overall).

Abnett and Lanning are back now with another similar book, Heroes for Hire, also arising out of a crossover event that I didn't read (Shadowland) and also featuring a large, fluid cast of B- and C-list characters, this time from the street-level section of the Marvel universe instead of the cosmic arena. The first issue jumps in with the kind of dynamic storytelling the duo brought to Guardians of the Galaxy, with the crossover having taken care of much of the back story and set-up (although it's perfectly clear what's going on even to those of us who haven't read the previous stories). It's not anything special -- the Falcon, Black Widow, Moon Knight and Elektra work to stop the smuggling of a new super-drug -- but it's action-packed and exciting, and it makes good use of the second-tier characters. It's similar in both its cast and its premise to Chuck Dixon's Marvel Knights series from a few years ago, which was an effective, unpretentious superhero series that never found the audience it deserved.

There's a twist ending involving team mastermind Misty Knight that hints at a larger story to come, and the art by Guardians veteran Brad Walker is clean and appealingly kinetic. I don't expect Abnett and Lanning to reinvent the superhero comic, but if they can keep telling these simple, direct stories and add some depth to oft-mistreated characters (and keep Walker around), then that's good enough for me. Just as long as the crossovers are kept to a minimum.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Bette Davis Month Bonus: The Scapegoat (1959)

Bette Davis played opposite herself twice, in 1946's A Stolen Life and 1964's Dead Ringer, both times appearing as a woman who took the place of her twin sister after that sister died. The Scapegoat, made five years before Dead Ringer, is another movie about a character impersonating someone to whom they bear an exact resemblance, although in this case it's Alec Guinness in the dual role, and Davis hamming it up as part of the supporting cast. She plays a morphine-addicted countess who appears in three scenes and is mostly bed-ridden, but she makes the most of the part, and is a catty, cackling contrast to the dry restraint of the rest of the movie.

Davis is practically comic relief given the somber tone of the rest of the movie, but the low-key approach works for this thriller based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier (who wrote the source material for Alfred Hitchcock's Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and The Birds). Guinness plays a depressed, lonely college professor who happens upon his exact double while vacationing in France. The double, an amoral nobleman, tricks the professor into taking on his life and then disappears, leaving the professor to pick up the pieces (which include Davis' overbearing mother). Guinness does a good job of conveying two different personalities in the double role, although he's playing just one part for most of the movie. Still, there are complexities to playing a character who is pretending to be another character (that you also play), and Guinness pulls those off well, too.

The story is a little slow, and the direction is a little too subdued, but overall The Scapegoat is a nice thriller with a satisfyingly ambiguous ending. It finds Davis in her scene-stealing supporting-role mode, although she's given prominent billing in the credits. Mainly she's here to liven things up a little and offer an amusing counterpoint to the buttoned-down Guinness. On that count, she succeeds, and the movie mostly does as well.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Bette Davis Month Bonus: The Bride Came C.O.D. (1941)

I went from a pleasantly diverting romantic comedy to this strained mess in my tour through the Bette Davis filmography. While It's Love I'm After was contrived and silly but ultimately entertaining and well-acted, The Bride Came C.O.D. is even more contrived but pretty consistently annoying, and my patience with it ran out quickly. Davis plays an imperious heiress who impulsively decides to marry a vapid bandleader (Jack Carson) whom she's known only a few days. Her father is apoplectic, so he hires the private pilot (James Cagney) flying the heiress and her fiance to Vegas to get married to instead take the heiress to her father.

It gets even more needlessly convoluted when the pilot and the heiress crash-land in a desert ghost town inhabited by a single old coot, but all the plot machinations serve the single purpose of, naturally, getting the two main characters together. Davis and Cagney bicker the entire time but have no chemistry, and the characters are both so unlikable that it's hard to root for them to end up with anyone. The heiress is spoiled and spiteful, and the pilot is dishonest and condescending. Those are not the makings of a great love story.

The plot works so hard to delay the inevitable that it's kind of maddening; the two characters spend a significant amount of time trapped in an old mine for no apparent reason. The difference between this movie and It's Love I'm After can be summed up by a comedic bit they both share, in which Davis' character barricades the door to her room only to have her unwanted suitor come in by the window behind her. In Love, Leslie Howard enters with a playful wink and soon the two are in each other's arms; in Bride, Cagney enters with a sneer and looks ready to pounce. Which of those sounds funny and romantic?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Nick Spencer's Morning Glories and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents

Nick Spencer is one of the hottest writers in comics right now thanks to his various successful Image series, the latest of which is the very popular Morning Glories. I read previews online of some of Spencer's previous miniseries -- Shuddertown, Forgetless -- that didn't really impress me, but I liked the first look at Morning Glories and have picked up all four issues to date (despite their relative scarcity). The intriguing premise, with a number of teenagers trapped in a sadistic prep school, owes a lot to The Prisoner and Lost and X-Men, and probably coincidentally is nearly the same set-up as the recent Cartoon Network series Tower Prep. But it's a lot darker and meaner than Tower Prep, and the real sense of danger keeps the suspense up.

Of course, a series like this will get increasingly frustrating if it just involves the heroes trying to escape and failing, and even though the plot has moved a decent amount in these four issues, there's a slight sense of repetition as well. The good thing is that Spencer can take things wherever he wants them, and he's created an intriguing enough setting with plenty of mysteries (the third issue's opening flashback to the 15th century implies a rich mythology in the background) to suggest that there are a lot of places to go. The various teen characters are still working to differentiate themselves, and the story is still shaking off its influences, but it's got some decent cliffhangers and solid art from Joe Eisma, and most importantly, plenty of potential. I plan to stick around to see where it goes.

I'm also intrigued by Spencer's new DC series T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, his first major corporate superhero assignment. Luckily DC hasn't just ignored his strengths and slotted him into some generic Batman spin-off; T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents is quirky and self-contained, with characters that inherently lack continuity baggage and can be handled without excessive caution. The idea is that this covert agency gives its operatives superpowers that kill them within a year, so many of the characters are pretty much expendable, and Spencer can focus on a large cast that emphasizes the support staff over the superheroes.

I don't read many mainstream superhero books anymore (the only one I'm regularly picking up right now is X-Factor), but like Morning Glories this is intriguing enough to stick with. Spencer lays out the first issue in a nonlinear fashion that is a little disorienting at first but eventually comes together (ending at another great cliffhanger), and it definitely doesn't feel like another retread added to pad the company's superhero line. The art from CAFU is lovely, with a clean, crisp look reminiscent of John Cassaday's work. I just hope DC can keep from meddling with things too much and let Spencer do his thing without drawing him into epic crossovers (or just canceling the book after five issues). For now, I'd say that Spencer deserves much of his praise, and I might even go back and give those other Image books a shot.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Bette Davis Month Bonus: It's Love I'm After (1937)

The third time is the charm with the random Bette Davis movies I've been recording from TCM. After a couple of duds, this goofy comedy is a welcome change. It's certainly not a great movie or one of Davis' best performances, but it's entertaining and light, and it zips along at a brisk pace. Davis is good, and she's well-matched by Leslie Howard (the actual lead) and Olivia de Havilland, who is always an appealing collaborator for Davis (I enjoyed their work together in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, In This Our Life and Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte; this was their first movie together). The screwball antics are pretty predictable, and some of the running gags get old. But mostly It's Love I'm After is fun to watch, especially since the actors all give such lively performances.

Howard is egotistical stage star Basil Underwood, who's in a tumultuous relationship with fellow, slightly less famous thespian Joyce Arden (Davis). When infatuated fan Marcia West (de Havilland) crashes his dressing room, he agrees to a proposal by her fiance to spend a weekend at her house behaving reprehensibly in order to disabuse her of her crush. Naturally, disaster occurs: Marcia refuses to budge in her love for Basil, he starts to feel that maybe he's with the wrong woman, and Joyce shows up to throw a wrench in the whole thing. There's a lot of door-slamming and storming off, but it all seems pretty inconsequential. The pleasure is in seeing Howard as the preening egotist with a misguided sense of bettering himself, or Davis as the almost equally egotistical woman who can't resist a man as self-involved as she is. De Havilland's Marcia is more innocent, but she too ends up being plenty manipulative, and has a naughty twinkle to her performance behind the wide-eyed naivete.

There's also Eric Blore as Basil's absurdly put-upon assistant, who is clearly in love with his boss and will do anything for him. The running gag of the assistant packing and unpacking Basil's bags runs out of steam long before the end of the movie, and Blore is a little hammy where the main stars are more restrained. But it's still a fun little touch and a credit to the movie that it doesn't just let the big stars do all the work. The funniest, most effective scene, though, is probably the very beginning, in which Basil and Joyce play out the final scene of Romeo and Juliet, undercutting the romantic tragedy with snarky asides to each other. Howard and Davis play the transition between grandiose Acting and narcissistic sniping perfectly, possibly because they were adept at both in real life.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Glory Daze

I wouldn't trust anything associated with Wild Hogs and Old Dogs director Walt Becker, who co-created Glory Daze, and indeed the new TBS dramedy has his dumb-guy fingerprints all over it: It's set in 1986 for no reason other than to wallow in lazy nostalgia, and it's full of lazy stereotypes and tired plot devices. Four dudes at a generic state college join a misfit fraternity; cue large-scale appropriations from Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds and any other college-themed movie of the last 30 years. Daze isn't as offensive as Becker's movies, maybe because it isn't full of big stars mugging for the camera in desperate bids for attention. But even if the acting is a little more low-key, the writing is still one-dimensional and predictable, and the jokes are tired and unfunny.

Also, I have no idea why this show is an hour long; it's essentially a comedy, as evidenced by Cheri Oteri, Brad Garrett and Time Meadows all guest-starring in the first episode, along with the deep debts to big-screen college sex comedies. But it plods on endlessly, with labored set pieces about pranks gone wrong and far too much time spent on go-nowhere supporting characters. I suppose it's positive that TBS is trying something new with its original scripted shows; at least this isn't another Tyler Perry-style sitcom. But a nostalgic comedy-drama set at college in the 1980s could have been bittersweet and genuinely funny, and instead Glory Daze is barely a step or two above Blue Mountain State.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on TBS.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Triskaidekaphilia: Prisoner 13

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

Searching around for these movies with 13 in the title has led me to some interesting and unexpected places, and with the 1933 Mexican film Prisoner 13, I was introduced to director Fernando De Fuentes, an extremely influential figure in Mexico's cinema golden age of the 1930s and '40s. I had never heard of De Fuentes before, but he made dozens of movies over the course of two decades, of which Prisoner 13 is the second. It's also the first in a loose trilogy about the Mexican Revolution, with a story about a corrupt and selfish military colonel who pays dearly and ironically for his arrogance. The plot is a little overheated, and the pacing is kind of off (the colonel's estranged wife and son are key characters who disappear for nearly half the movie), but there are some powerful depictions of the corruption and chaos of the revolution.

De Fuentes is a strong filmmaker, although it's sometimes hard to tell in the murky, scratchy print of this film that's available on DVD. He uses several long tracking shots across the faces of condemned revolutionaries that give a simple but powerful sense of desperation, and another tracking shot earlier in the movie to illustrate the range of daily life. He might have done a little too good of a job depicting the complexity of the revolution on both sides, since he was required (by the government, at least according to an IMDb commenter) to tack on a ridiculous "it was all a dream" ending, which pretty much invalidates the entire film. If everything leading up to that teeters between affecting and overwrought, the ending tips the scales, and closes the movie with a feeling of uselessness.

I get the impression that Prisoner 13 might be more valuable for its influence and historical value than for its potential as entertainment, but it's still worth seeing. Wikipedia says that the New York Times called De Fuentes "the Mexican John Ford," which means I might want to check out more of his films.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

AFI Fest, day three

On Sunday I ended up missing a few things I wanted to see, and my alternate choices were a little disappointing. But this was a strong festival overall, and even the movies I wasn't crazy about were far from terrible. Probably the least impressive movie I saw was Chico & Rita, an innocuous but bland animated movie about the decades-long love story between two Cuban jazz musicians. It's filled with excellent music, but the story is predictable and simplistic, the dialogue is flat, and the animation is shapeless and kind of sloppy.

Also disappointing was the exploitation-style goof Norwegian Ninja, a sort of fanciful take on a real-life Norwegian government official who was arrested for being a Soviet spy. Director Thomas Cappelen Malling reimagines the man as the leader of an elite squad of, yes, Norwegian ninjas, and he shoots the movie like an old martial-arts movie or straight-to-video action cheapie. That makes for a few laughs, but mostly Norwegian Ninja is just confusing and scattered, a collection of empty pastiches. Merely copying the style of a type of movie generally known for being amusingly terrible isn't enough if you can't add something to it.

Much better was Diego Luna's Abel, a touching and funny family comedy/drama about a mentally disturbed young boy who convinces himself he's the patriarch of his family after his actual father runs off. Luna mostly avoids excessive sentiment even when dealing with some very sensitive issues, and he balances humor with poignancy very well. Young actor Christopher Ruíz-Esparza is excellent as the boy, giving a convincing performance as a child pretending to be an adult (that's a lot of layers to navigate). Some of it is a little cutesy and melodramatic, but it wraps up in a melancholy way without offering any easy answers. Given Luna's fame as an actor, I expect this will end up with at least a limited theatrical release in the U.S. before too long.

I also managed to catch a pretty strong shorts program, with only one piece that didn't really work (an Israeli film about a soldier on leave). It included the funny and unexpectedly affecting Successful Alcoholics (right), written by and starring T.J. Miller, previously known as an annoying supporting player in movies like Get Him to the Greek and She's Out of My League. Miller and the always excellent Lizzy Caplan play a pair of highly functioning alcoholics who are hilarious and carefree until reality sets in, and that transition is played incredibly well by the two actors and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts. I also enjoyed the goofy time-travel lark Time Freak; the backstage theatre comedy The Savage Canvas; the surprisingly sweet British comedy I Love Luci, about a pair of drug addicts; and the innovative documentary Photograph of Jesus. Basically everything except that one Israeli movie. Shorts are always underappreciated, and I was glad I got to catch at least one program, and that the theater was mostly full for it.

And that was it. I wish I could have stayed longer (the event runs through this Thursday), but other work beckoned. If you live in the L.A. area, though, you should absolutely get down to this festival, even if you have no tickets. It was remarkably easy to get into screenings that I didn't have tickets for (the aforementioned missed screenings were only because I showed up very late and didn't want to sit in the front row). The staff was friendly and helpful and just as accommodating to random members of the public as they were to press and industry people. Even the fancy gala premieres of studio films had plenty of room for average fans. I hope to be able to cover the festival for more than just this blog next year, but even if I can't get a press pass, I'll definitely return.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

AFI Fest, day two

I know that film festivals are the places to check out the kinds of difficult, uncompromising and experimental movies that would never make it to mainstream audiences, and I do like seeing those. But I also love genre movies, and I appreciate that festivals like AFI don't shy away from programming thrillers and horror movies and things like that, because those films can be just as exciting and artistic as more personal works. Today I happened to catch three genre-style movies, all of which succeeded to some degree, while the two art movies I saw were decidedly less satisfying (although both had their moments).

The highlight of the day (and probably the festival so far) for me was the Belgian thriller Pulsar, directed by Alex Stockman and starring Matthias Schoenaerts, who's apparently a big star in his native country. Pulsar sort of updates the techno-paranoia of movies like The Conversation and Blow Out for the wi-fi age, and moves its conspiracy focus from the criminal to the personal. Schoenaerts is great as a guy who's convinced someone has hacked into his personal computer network and is using it to screw up his relationship with his long-distance girlfriend. Pulsar becomes more and more surreal toward the end, but it always remains grounded in its depictions of jealousy and fear of betrayal, as well as in its illustration of how dependent we are on technology to connect us to one another.

There was much less ambiguity and artiness to the other two foreign genre movies I saw today: Pretty much none, in fact, in the Russian thriller The Weather Station, one of those noir-type movies in which small bad decisions spiral out of control until nearly all of the characters end up dead. You could pretty much translate this movie word-for-word and have it be an American studio picture, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. It has a few too many absurd twists, and it gets really melodramatic toward the end, but overall it's an entertaining, fast-paced thriller with a nifty setting (a remote weather outpost). The Spanish horror movie Julia's Eyes (right) actually is a studio production (from Universal), produced by Guillermo del Toro, so it should have no trouble finding an audience. It's a pretty creepy movie with a cool gimmick in a protagonist who is progressively losing her sight, and it loses points only for dragging on too long (with, again, a twist or two too many) and for getting overly sappy at times. Still, I found it more exciting than the last horror sensation del Toro brought over from Spain, the overrated The Orphanage.

So the foreign movies I saw were all pulpy genre exercises, while today's American movies were indulgent art pieces. Actually, Alistair Banks Griffin's Two Gates of Sleep has some slight genre elements, with enough of a central mystery that one audience member at the post-screening Q&A asked Griffin to explain what happened at the end (he refused, saying only that there were "clues" astute viewers could decipher). Mostly, though, it's a slow, nearly dialogue-free account of two hillbilly brothers on a long trip to bury their dead mother in a location whose significance I could never discern. Griffin shot in the backwoods of Mississippi and Louisiana, and the cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes looks phenomenal. There's just enough of a story to make it frustrating that Griffin leaves so much out, though, and lead actors Brady Corbet and David Call can't quite fill in the gaps to make up for those shortcomings.

Also frustrating but not nearly as bad as I expected it would be was Cam Archer's Shit Year. I hated Archer's first feature, the solipsistic Wild Tigers I Have Known, when I saw it at CineVegas a few years ago, and Shit Year shares some of that movie's penchant for endless navel-gazing and nonsensical ponderousness. But it's saved at times by the wonderful lead performance from Ellen Barkin, who plays a burned-out actress depressed by her recent retirement and the end of her affair with a much younger co-star (complete non-presence Luke Grimes). Archer still indulges in laughable dream/fantasy sequences that belabor the emotions Barkin conveys with just her demeanor and delivery, and he's still completely spastic and undisciplined when it come to structure. But in the mostly straightforward narrative scenes, Shit Year is insightful and melancholy and affecting, and the grainy black and white cinematography by Aaron Platt is outstanding.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

AFI Fest, day one

With CineVegas no more, and the rest of Vegas' film festivals mostly small niche events (although plenty of them are excellent), I really wanted to check out a large-scale general-interest film festival this year, so I'm in Los Angeles for a few days at AFI Fest. I'm attending just as a fan, so I don't have a press pass, and my selections have been dictated by the availability of the festival's free tickets (the entire event is free, which is awesome for people who don't have industry or media connections). Still, I have a pretty full schedule. Here's a quick look at what I saw on my first day at the festival:

The Human Resources Manager (Eran Riklis) I saw Israeli director Riklis' film The Syrian Bride at the Las Vegas Jewish Film Festival in 2007, and this movie is similarly balanced between mainstream accessibility and serious examinations of sociopolitical issues. Like The Syrian Bride, The Human Resources manager is concerned with the place where two cultures intersect, as the title character, who works for a large Jerusalem bakery, travels to Romania to represent the company at the funeral of an employee who was killed in a suicide bombing. What's meant as a face-saving measure of course becomes more meaningful, and the manager bonds with the sullen son of the dead woman. It's a little too cutesy at times, but Riklis mostly holds back on the big emotional moments, and instead lets his capable actors quietly demonstrate the coming together of both individuals and traditions.

Free Radicals (Pip Chodorov) This documentary about the history of experimental filmmaking is exuberant and fun (Chodorov himself is an experimental filmmaker, and his father is a TV journalist who spotlighted many of the movement's pioneers in its early days), but it's also a little incomplete and scattered, focusing on only a handful of (admittedly important and influential) filmmakers and jumping around in time. Chodorov's enthusiasm is sometimes detrimental, as he seems to be saying, "Look at all these awesome people I'm friends with!" rather than laying out a real primer on this fascinating movement for people who are unfamiliar with it. But he effectively conveys his excitement, sometimes best of all when he simply steps aside and plays out wonderful short experimental films in their entirety.

Putty Hill (Matthew Porterfield) I appreciate unvarnished naturalism, but Porterfield's improvised drama about friends and family coming together for the funeral of a working-class Baltimore drug addict is often realistic to the point of tedium, with scenes of repetitive or simply inaudible dialogue, poorly lit locations and one sequence that takes place almost entirely in the pitch dark. Some of these choices are stylistically impressive (one conversation that takes place between two friends while the camera is on two other friends shows contrasting viewpoints in an understated way), but too many of them feel like Porterfield just lost control of the scene (one karaoke sequence near the end goes on for what feels like years). Some of the acting from the cast of nonprofessionals is disarmingly strong, but nearly as much of it is awkward and forced. Ultimately I felt that the frustrations outweighed the triumphs by too much.

Cargo (Ivan Engler & Ralph Etter) Billed as the first sci-fi movie from Switzerland, Cargo looks impressive given its reportedly tiny budget, but all the resourceful special effects can't make up for a muddled story cobbled together from various sci-fi classics. It starts as a sort of "haunted ship"-type story in the vein of Alien or Event Horizon, and builds up a decent amount of suspense in that mode, even if all the moves are familiar. But the final third shifts gears entirely to do a whole Matrix riff complete with overblown emotional moments, and it's far too cheesy and pompous to be taken seriously. Engler and Etter don't know when to quit, and by the time the movie finally sputtered to an end, I had completely stopped caring.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloweek: Halloween: Resurrection (2002)

Halloween: H20 was mediocre, but it at least put a nice capper on the series, bringing back Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode and allowing her to get some closure by killing Michael Myers in a seemingly definitive way (by lopping off his head). It could have sent the series out on a dignified if unspectacular note. But obviously the producers couldn't leave well enough alone, and so they went back to the well four years later, tainting whatever meager legacy they had established with this lame cash-in of a sequel, and totally wasting Curtis in a throwaway opening. Not only is the ending of H20 invalidated with a stupid retcon (Michael actually switched places with a paramedic before he was beheaded), but Laurie is also killed off in a completely anticlimactic way after all she's been through. The first 15 minutes, with Michael tracking down Laurie at a mental institution, have essentially nothing to do with the rest of the movie. Maybe if that part had been fleshed out to feature length, and Laurie had been given a real storyline, Resurrection could have been okay.

Instead, what we get is a pathetic online/reality-TV storyline about six generic college students (apparently there is now a university in Haddonfield) being recruited to spend a night in the old Myers house while broadcasting it all over the Internet. The characters are fitted with cameras that make them look like they're on that old MTV reality show Fear, and director Rick Rosenthal (returning from Halloween II) intersperses the broadcast footage with the traditional narrative of people wandering around the dark and getting killed. Less than a decade later, the whole conceit already seems incredibly dated, and there's no effort made to use it to any sort of clever effect. Instead it's just a flimsy excuse to get these characters in one place so Michael can kill them.

After H20 erased all the convoluted mythology that had been built up in the fourth, fifth and sixth movies, Resurrection goes about trying to create some new, equally useless back story, while reinforcing the idea that those three past sequels are no longer part of the continuity. But unlike H20, this movie has no justification for its narrative; were it not for the opening sequence with Laurie, this could be a completely unrelated film that takes place in either version of the continuity. The storytelling is completely lazy, and the characters have no meaningful connection to Michael or his history. Although Resurrection moves the action back to Haddonfield, there's no sense of the town or how the location plays into the story. It's just a convenient place for Michael to show up.

And instead of the talented young actors of H20, Resurrection offers up Busta Rhymes, Tyra Banks and American Pie's Thomas Ian Nicholas, along with a bunch of other forgettable faces (although future Battlestar Galactica star Katee Sackhoff is amusing as a sassy attention whore). The acting is mostly terrible, and Rhymes brings it to a whole new level of awfulness; the movie's clear low point is when he attempts to use kung fu on Michael. No one seems to be putting in much of an effort, and Resurrection only escapes being the worst movie in the franchise by making at least a modicum of sense from moment to moment, as opposed to The Curse of Michael Myers. The movie ends on an obligatory cliffhanger setting up the possibility of yet another sequel, but that never happened. Five years later, the producers scrapped it all and started over with a remake, beginning the whole cycle again.

Bonus: Here's my review of the 2007 Rob Zombie Halloween remake.

Dead Set

I suppose Halloween is the time for zombies to invade pop culture, but it seems like every other thing I write about these days has zombies in it. There are the artsy zombie movies Colin and Make-Out With Violence, which I recently reviewed on DVD; there's the new AMC series The Walking Dead; heck, there was even a zombie-themed episode of Community. So I was a little wary of the 2008 British miniseries Dead Set, which had its belated U.S. premiere on IFC this week. It has a clever high concept, looking at the zombie apocalypse from the perspective of contestants on the U.K. version of the reality show Big Brother (which is much, much more popular there than it is here). But I was disappointed that it was still shot and structured like a traditional movie or TV series, not set up like footage from an actual reality show.

Once I got past that, though, I enjoyed the show's twist on the formula, which brings in bits of sly media satire but doesn't go overboard. The reality-show contestants are narcissistic and shallow, but they're also well-rounded characters who prove to be resourceful when faced with danger. The show's arrogant producer is by far the least likable character, and having an everywoman production assistant as the main protagonist balances things out. Media critic Charlie Brooker wrote Dead Set, but he doesn't short-change the horror in favor of social commentary or parody, even though he gets in plenty of ironic digs at reality TV (part of the series was filmed on the actual Big Brother set). Mostly this is just a satisfying zombie series, and I actually enjoyed it a little more than the two episodes I've seen of The Walking Dead so far. Granted, that show is open-ended while Dead Set comes to a clear conclusion, but it still has a bit more urgency and definitely more humor. The Walking Dead has been heavily promoted and is definitely worth watching, but even if you're sick of zombies you might want to give Dead Set a chance as well.

All five episodes air tonight starting at 7:30 p.m. on IFC.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Halloweek: Halloween: H20 (1998)

After the severely declining quality of the Halloween sequels that preceded it, Halloween: H20 is a marked improvement merely by not being completely dreadful. But the return of Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode is not as triumphant as it should have been; she comes back to anchor a pretty basic slasher movie, although it tries at times to deal with themes of trauma and letting go, in relation to Laurie's 20 years of fear that Michael Myers will return. That's right: As far as this movie is concerned, Michael's been missing since the events of Halloween II, and pretty much everything from the fourth, fifth and sixth movies has been erased from continuity. I'm sure the idea here was to connect H20 to the earlier, more well-regarded Halloween movies, and certainly ignoring the absurd mess of cultists and ancient symbols that the sixth movie tried to sell was a good idea. But it's a shame that Danielle Harris' Jamie Lloyd was written out, because she had flashes of being an interesting character, and Harris did a really good job with some really dodgy writing. She was consistently better than the movies she was in.

Curtis, despite having initiated this project herself, doesn't bring much of a new dimension to Laurie, who's now living under an assumed name after having faked her death in a car crash (that car crash being just about the only plot point that remains intact from the previous sequels). Grown-up Laurie is now the headmistress of a California boarding school, making H20 the first Myers-focused Halloween sequel not to take place in Haddonfield (it's also the first without Donald Pleasence, who died after completing work on the sixth movie). Michael hasn't been seen in 20 years, since the night he supposedly burned to death in the hospital in Haddonfield (Pleasence's Dr. Loomis is mentioned as having died as well, although it's not clear if he perished in the fire or lived a while longer). But suddenly Michael shows back up, with no explanation of where he's been for two decades or how he survived (say what you will about installments four, five and six, but they explained the shit out of everything).

Michael tracks Laurie down and sets about killing the people around her, of which there are a limited number since most of the school's students have left on an extended field trip. Like John Carpenter's original, H20 spends a good amount of time on character development before it gets to the hacking and slashing, and a number of young actors who went on to prominent careers have parts here, including Josh Hartnett as Laurie's teenage son John, Michelle Williams as his girlfriend and Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the dude who gets killed before the opening credits roll. The teen characters are only mildly interesting, although writers Robert Zappia and Matt Greenberg (working from an uncredited story by Kevin Williamson) create an intriguing dynamic between Laurie and John, who sees his mother's constant fear of Michael Myers as irrational and limiting.

Unlike Wes Craven's smart and suspenseful return to his signature franchise with 1994's New Nightmare, H20 doesn't actually have its original director on board (Carpenter was set to direct at one point but dropped out and was replaced by Steve Miner), and it's only superficially engaged with the themes of the original film and subsequent franchise. It's still scary at times and, like Carpenter's original, extremely economical. It scales back the excesses of the later sequels to focus on sympathetic characters running from a monster, and it does a decent job of it. It ends with a moment that was clearly meant to put a definitive end to the franchise, and if that had happened it would have been a respectable way to go out. Of course, very little about the Halloween series was ever respectable, and H20 ended up being just another movie for Michael to slash his way through on the way to the next.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Halloweek: Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)

It's silly to expect these later Halloween sequels to be quality films, but at least there's some dumbass entertainment value to be found in the previous two installments. No such redeeming qualities show up in Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, the sixth and possibly worst film in the series. It follows up on some of the plot elements of Halloween 5, but in a haphazard, nonsensical way, taking the mysterious symbol and black-shrouded stranger of that movie (which were annoyingly never explained) and making them part of some sort of mystical cult that worships or perhaps created Michael Myers (like everything in this movie, it's totally unclear). Curse is consumed with this idiotic mythology, which makes even less sense after all the on-set rewrites and reshoots that came out of creative clashes between director Joe Chappelle, screenwriter Daniel Farrands and producer Paul Freeman. And while Curse is gorier than previous installments, it's also almost completely suspense-free, thanks to Michael being on a killing rampage from the first scene, with no time to build up interesting characters or situations to care about.

Right away the filmmakers trash the work of the previous two films, with poor Jamie (now played by J.C. Brandy) getting offed early on, right after giving birth to a son who is apparently the new designated heir of the Michael Myers legacy (at least as far as the muddled cult is concerned). It's a shame that Danielle Harris didn't come back for even this brief appearance; it's clear from the disaster that is Curse just how vital her presence was to the previous two movies, and she's become nearly as much of a franchise icon as Jamie Lee Curtis or Donald Pleasence (she did go on to play a teenager in Rob Zombie's two remakes). Pleasence does come back, but his role is diminished, partially because Chappelle reportedly didn't like his work and cut many of his scenes, and partially because he died before the extensive reshoots took place. It's a sad way for this distinguished actor to end his career.

The real star of Curse isn't the top-billed Pleasence but Paul Rudd in one of his earliest movie roles, playing the grown-up version of Tommy Doyle, the little kid Laurie Strode was babysitting in the first movie when Michael attacked. Tommy has become a super-creepy loner obsessed with Michael (so where was he in the previous sequels?), and he somehow lucks in to finding Jamie's infant son, whom she has conveniently stashed in a cabinet in a bus-station bathroom before getting killed. Tommy is intense and weird, but Rudd's performance is so hammy that it seems like a constant self-parody. Although he's now known primarily for comedy, Rudd can certainly pull off dramatic roles. Here, though, he seems like he's about to bust up laughing the whole time, and it makes Tommy more goofy than creepy.

None of the acting here is any good; Pleasence lumbers through his role without any hint of the craziness that Loomis displayed in previous movies (he's even somehow lost his burn scars, although he retains his limp). And Chappelle's direction has none of the visual flair of Halloween 5's Dominique Othenin-Girard. There's apparently a radically different cut available in bootleg form, with more than 40 minutes' worth of different footage, and perhaps that version makes more sense, or is at least coherently edited (here, scenes often seem to be missing or cut before they've actually ended). Even so, I can't imagine there's actually a good version of this movie to be salvaged from this fiasco.