Worst of 2009

The Absolute Worst Films of 2009

I’ve run out of good things to say about 2009 so after catching up on the bad things I am, after all these many months, finally ready to close the door on last year.

1.Lovely Bones (Peter Jakson)

A film so misguided and ill-conceived that it essentially undid all the greatness Peter Jackson was able to accomplish with his masterful, decade defining “Lord of the Rings” series. I didn’t think it possible but this movie surpassed Jackson’s God awful “King Kong” fuckery. With “Bones,” Jackson takes an adaption about a dead girl “solving” her own murder. This could have been cool if only the filmmaker didn’t Spielbergize it to a point of nauseating candy coated proportions. The shallow as a grave and bare “Bones” film fails as a gritty mystery because characters sit around and mope rather than engage in any sort of investigation and the movie fails just as hard as a “What Dreams May Come” type of fantasy because characters sit around in a magical candy land and just sort of stair off into space. In the latter scenes, the film does little more than showcase its heavenly effects. The film not only gets the admittedly tricky tone surrounding dual realities connected by love (rolles eyes) all wrong but lays the schmaltz on so thick that it forgets (or fails) to give the viewer a proper sense of logic, purpose, reason, causality or motivation. Obviously this kind of story that requires the viewer to take a leap of faith and while I went into it with a total sense of openness, I found it impossible to do so because this forced, heavy handed and dramatically inept film doesn’t meet us half way or provide any reason for why we should take that leap. This may be the most passive mystery ever made! Like its main character, “Bones” is as dead as disco and yet also like her it never shuts the fuck up or gets real for even a second. “We’re in heaven…. yaaaaaay” a fellow lost soul tells our wonderstruck heroine. If this is heaven then I’d rather be in hell. (full review)

2. Away We Go (Sam Mendes) “I can’t believe you told your mother about my tilted uterus.” “I didn’t know your tilted uterus was a secret.” “Yes, my tilted uterus is a secret.” Wonderful. Okay then… two married, or dating (I don’t even remember) and self-described “fuck-ups”/non-self-described douche bags decide to travel around the country to “find themselves.” The two attention sponges played by a pregnant Maya Ruldoph and, um, a bearded John Krasinski get so much out of life and suck so much more out of it. And us! Their journey is a draining affair full of trite sentiments, forced indie music cuts, tacky humor and phony drama. Every line and plot action is performed in a precious, whispery aren’t we funny/cute/profound way that instantly activated my gag reflexes. The ponderous dramedy (directed by the overrated Sam Mendes with a screenplay by David Eggers of all people!) enables the 30-something angstaholics to a point of complicity. It’s not presenting their story but selling it and rubbing it in our faces. While this isn’t technically the “worst” movie of the year it is certainly the most annoying and definitely the most insincere hipster message movie since “Rachael Getting Married” and “Garden State” before it. A movie made for all those preening monkeys who grew up being told how important they are. (full review)

3. The Blind Side (John Lee Hancock)
“I never had one before,” “What, a room of your own?” “No……… a bed.” “The Blind Side” is not only biggest turd of the year but after a shameful best picture nomination/best actress win it’s the most unjustly celebrated turd of the year. This Republican wanking, pseudo inspirational sports drama has me convinced that people in general are way too easily inspired. Its “based on a true story” (but not really) views on small towns, sports and race relations is archaic and down right creepy. After watching “The Blind Side,” for instance, I learned that all white people are rich, that all black people need help from said all white people and that all black people are either on drugs or sell drugs. The film is that blank and white (no pun intended) about the world it exists in and the people that inhabit that world.
The (indirect? unintended?) racial condescension gets even creepier with its curious depiction of white saints treating its resident sad, black and perpetually moping lug of character (Quinton Aaron in a horrible performance of startling one dimensionality) as if he has no agency or power to help himself. Rather, he must be directly controlled, shaped, pitied, educated and generally “fixed.” The firecracker Football Mom played by the untalented-as-ever Sandra Bullock determines that “that poor Michael is like a fly in milk at that place.” This giant sized teen, compared to an animal (or insect as it were) is literally turned into a pet project by her. And by the film as well which is as lazy as they get. The shrill and irritating Bullock (and her shrill and irritating family) seems to be thinking, “hey, this boy’s black and big so lets put a football in his hands” as if that’s all a person like this can offer the world. Oh, but don’t worry, the film also allows it’s black character to be a bit racist. Apparently white folk, with their books and food and, oh wow look at that, beds, are “weird.” I can almost see his point. As bad as things get, black and white Amreica come together at the end thanks to football, the prospect of money and of course Jesus. “You’re changing that boy’s life,” Bullock is told by an ego stroking cronies. “No……………………………… HE’S Changing ours” she responds in a line that illustrates the trite nature of the screenplay. Bravo assholes, like the movie “Crash” (another racist classic starring America’s Most loved Nazi lover) the one thing this sub-TV movie manages to do when it comes to racial relations is make me dislike all races involved.

4. G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra (Steven Sommers)
Worst “Hollywood” movie of the year. In fact, as soulless, disjointed and jagged as almost anything Michael Bay has ever done. Ironically, 2009 was the year Bay actually made a halfway good movie–literally, though, only about half of “Transformers 2” could qualify as being watchable but that’s a full 50% more than “G.I. Joe.” Everything about this film is awkward and stiff and, that being said, you won’t be surprised to learn that director Steven Sommers also made “Van Helsing.” Well, he managed to top himself! Star of tomorrow (and that’s really true than kill me now) and expert non-actor/male stripper Channing Tatum sucked harder here than his after hours activities at his previous job. And if it’s possible Marlon Waynes’ “that’s whack!” token black side-kicked sucked even harder. Did anyone survive unscathed? Yeah actually, Joseph Gordon Levit plays such an over-the-top, Darth Vader-ish heavy that he gave what’s either the worst performance of the year or some just sort of a brilliantly self aware “bad” performance on par with Marlon Brando in “The Island of Dr. Moreau,” Bill Murray in “Charlie’s Angels” and Robert De Niro in “Rocky and Bullwinkle.

5. Jennifer’s Body (Karyn Kusama)
Yes, I like “Juno.” No, I don’t like Diablo Cody. Her name at this point in her “career” is a punchline and the joke was this shitty shitty film she wrote. This teen horror movie tries sooooo hard and goes sooooo nowhere that it makes “New Moon” look like a Bergman movie.

6. Up in the Air (Jason Reitman)
Speaking of “Juno,” did I mention how much I dislike Jason Reitman? For putting George Clooney in a rare bad movie he can never be forgiven. I’m serious: Steve Gagen and I are still not on speaking terms after “Syriana.” The film tries to be socially relevant and comes off socially inept. Any film with this amount of insincere sincerity is almost guaranteed to land a spot on my top ten. To make matters worse this film also tries to be funny and comes off cloying. It tries to be dramatic and comes off… the rails. I’m shocked that it managed to be both popular and respected. (full review)

7. Paper Heart (Nicholas Jasenovec)
This nugget of indulgent indie hipster bullshit was saved but the bigger and stinkier piece of indie hipster bullshit that was “Away we Go.”

8. Taking Woodstock (Ang Lee)
Ang Lee is such a hard director to figure out. He’s capable of mighty feats of technical skill like “Crouching Tiger…”, gritty American dramas like “The Ice Storm” and rich period melodramas like “Brokeback Mountain,” and “Ride with the Devil.” He’s also really good at fucking good things up. The stylized “Hulk” and noir “Lust, Caution” are both virtually unwatchable. “Taking Woodstock” belongs in that second category of Ang Lee movies. It’s not just bad but his opus of fuck-ups. It’s hard to watch but at the same time hard to stop watching because it’s so not cool.

9. Brothers (Jim Sheridan)
“The Hurt Locker.” “The Messenger.” For a genre that has no good movies to its name, Iraq War 2 movies gave us two good ones in 2009! The rarest of streaks was cut short by Hacky McHacksalot’s (aka Jim Sheridan) “Brothers.” This is not so much a bad movie as it is a really boring and biteless one. It plays it safe and plays it contrived. At the heart of the film’s problems is a miscast Toby Maguire who stars as a hardened (really?) soldier taken hostage while his wife paints her new kitchen with his boner hiding brother. THEN HE COMES HOME! The terrorists should have done us all a favor and not given him back.

10. Fireproof (Alex Kendrick)
HahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaHahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaHahahahahahahahahahahahaha
…(gasp)…ha. Married characters haven’t been this annoying since “Mr. and Mrs. Smith.” But at least that film had action and guns and shit. This one has fire fighters and Jesus.

11. Up (Pete Doctor)
Clear your mind and pretend you know nothing of Pixar or “Up” and just listen for a second. So there’s an old guy and his wife dies that bums him all out so he, well, he gets a bunch of balloons and, um, attaches them to his house and the house floats up and up and up in the air and, whoops, there’s a chubby Asian Boy Scout in the house too and so… uh, the house floats to an exotic land and almost lands but doesn’t quite land and the two jump off and find a rare bird that like chocolate and the three go on to meet an other old guy who has a blimp and hunts said exotic chocolate eating birds and, oh, he also has an army of talking dogs. THAT GOT AN OSCAR NOMINATION. THAT GOT TONS OF CRITICAL RESPECT. THAT MADE A LOT OF MONEY. PEOPLE LOVE THAT MOVIE.

12. Miss March (someone directed this?)
Gave it a shot because it made AV Club’s number #1 worst movie of the year. Now I wish I was shot.

13. Julie & Julia (Norah Ephron)
Only the Julie part makes the list. Amy Adams as an aspiring chef/nagger is hard to stomach. Here I was all ready to watch a movie about a historic figure and instead got one about a self obsessed blogger that leaches off a historic figure and screams at her husband for not being supportive enough. The effect this had was strange because the better Meryl Streep is in this movie (and she’s good), the more I ended up disliked it because it’s not really her movie at all. New rule: the only time Amy Adams should be allowed to be in a movie with Meryl Streep she better be playing a nun.

14. I Can Do Bad All By Myself (Tyler Perry)
So can Tyler Perry. I’m so sick of Perry’s that I’m not going to even bother watching his movies at this point, I’ll just put them on this list with the total confidence that they belong on it. Why are people so afraid to call Perry out on his hackiness?

15. The Burning Plain (Guillermo Arrigaga)
From the writer of the films “21 Grams” and “Babel” comes a film just as bad as “21 Grams” and “Babel.” Here’s the lesson and it’s a lesson worth learning. When a bad film is pointlessly rearranged, it becomes an even worse film.

16. X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Gavin Hood)
Almost had me missing the glory days of Brett Ratner. (full review)

17. Hanna Montana: The Movie (Peter Chelsom)
I’m not admitting to watching this movie. I’m only admitting that I didn’t like it. Draw your own connections if you must.

18. Mutant Chronicles (Simon Hunter)
Mutants, mutants never change. You would think a movie with Ron Pearlman, Thomas Jane and a shit load of mutants AND the apocalypse AND a giant hole in the earth where the mutants came from would be really cool. This movie is not really cool. It’s really stupid.

19. Year One (Harold Ramis)
No… more…

20. Land of the Lost (Brad Silbering)
…bad comedies!

 

Not Quite On The List but Not Quite Off The List:New Moon (dir. Chris Weitz)
Proof of how hard it is to mess up a story about vampires. This film is not bad but it’s such a lazy, you’re-going-to-pay-to-see-regardless-of-quality sequel that one has to admire the almost total lack of effort that went into the making of it. And this is coming from the director of the beautifully crafted (and underrated) “Golden Compass.” I can’t blame Chris Weitz though because he was clearly rushed by a studio that doesn’t give a blood sucking shit about quality. Summit is milking this bloated cow till it runs dry and they are wise to do so because they know that a few years from now it’s not going to hold up and that millions of girls of all ages are going to wake up out of this daze they’ve been in these last few years, hate themselves, then probably move on to a worse fad. 
“New Moon” is lightweight and very dumb but harmlessly so. The amazing thing about this series, book and movie, is how it attracts haters as much as it does fans. I love watching non-fans or as I like to call them “normal people” get all worked up about the creepy social message this series upholds. Girls apparently can’t function without an abusive man in their life. The message is rancid and the across-the-board performances (except the dad, who is always cool somehow) do not help things either. Bella, played by a pouty Kristen Stewart, is such an infuriating twit that I found myself dreaming of Buffy coming to town and kicking the brooding shit out of her (then, of course… lesbian sex). Buffy was into an vampire asshole too but she MOVED ON. Bella is such a needy creature that I don’t think independence is possible for her. Ah, it’s just so fun to snark on this movie! This is a movie instantly ready for Rifftrax. Had the above commentary been released in theaters it might have out grossed the actual movie.

Worst Lines of the Year:

 

  1. A character gets stabbed. “My tit,” she whispers. “No…………your heart” her friend tells her. Jennifer’s Body, keeping it real. A very profound and subtle statement Diablo, you are a true feminist.
  2. “You’re changing that boy’s life,” “No……………………………… HE’S changing ours.” Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side.
  3. “You’re lime green jell-o and you can’t even admit it to yourself.” Megan Fox in Jennifer’s Body.
  4. “I SEE YOOOOOOOOUUUUU,” Sam Worthington in Avatar.
  5. “You’re my only reason to stay alive……..if that’s what I am.” Edward in New Moon
  6. “I can’t believe you told your mother about my tilted uterus!” Maya Ruldoph in Away We Go.
  7. “Every second I am with you is about restraint… and you’re too fragile.” Edward (again) in New Moon.
  8. “You can’t trust vampires… trust me.” Edward (again, again) in New Moon
  9. “Bella, you give me everything just by… breathing” Edward (uh huh, again) in New Moon
  10. “We’re in………………. HHHHHEEEEEEAAAAAVVVVEEEENNNNN! Yaaaaaaaaaaaay!” Some stupid dead kid in Lovely Bones.
  11. “You never leave your partner! Especially in a fire!” Kirk Cameron, as a fireman, in Fireproof using a fantastic fire metaphor for his marriage. What a dick.

Top Ten Suprisingly Non-Bad “Bad” Movies

  1. The Box–destined to be either cult classic or a film people try their best to forget.
  2. Crank: High Voltage
  3. Knowing
  4. Taken
  5. Pandorum
  6. Gentlemen Broncos
  7. Push
  8. Gamer and Law Abiding Citizen (Two three star Butler movies brings up the grand total of watchable Butler movies to three. He still sucks though.)
  9. Funny People (Well funny until the lame third act where I found myself hoping Adam Sandler would get cancer again and stop making out with his boring ex wife. Hum, third act problems, where have I see that before, who directed this movie again?)
  10. Bandslam–a lot of cheese here but “Bandslam” is still one of the best High School/music movies around.
  11. Underworld: Rise of the Lycans–as Michael Sheen vampire movies go, better than “New Moon.”
  12. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Worst Directing

  1. Peter Jackson’s Lovely Bones
  2. Stephen Sommers’ G.I. Joe
  3. Tyler Perry’s I Can Do Bad…
  4. Karyn Kusama’s Jennifer’s Body
  5. Sam Mendes’ Away We Go

Worst Performances

  1. Worst of the Worst: Channing Tatum in “G.I. Joe.”
    Picture a Ken doll that sounds like Markey Mark from the 90s… and add zero acting ability, personality and charisma and you have an idea of Channing’s first big splash in the industry. Really, it’s more of a dribble though. Tatum is so bad that he transformed G.I. Joe from one of the worst films ever made to one of the worst films ever made EVER.
  2. Megan Fox, Jennifer’s Body and Transformers 2
    Head overruled other head on that vote.
  3. Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
    How did this false performance earned Oscar nomination I will never understand)
  4. Sam Worthington, Avatar/Terminator Salvation
    Sam Worthington can’t ruin every movie this year too, can he? Can he?! Oh shit, he gonna isn’t he!
  5. Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side
    She seems nice, let’s give her an Oscar.
  6. Sandra Bullock’s annoying fucking son (Jay Head… yes that’s his real name) in The Blind Side
    A special place in hell is reserved for this little shit.
  7. Sandra Bullock’s 300 lb pet project (Quinton Aaron) in The Blind Side.
    The master of one expression and one expression only. Here it is folks.
  8. Ms. mopes-alot Stewart in New Moon
    The most mentally crippled character in “literary” history successfully parlayed her mind numbing into the cinema thanks to Kristen Stewart’s perpetually off-putting, sad sack mumbling sappy stupid performance.
    Toby, we need you to play someone who is very dull and not quite in touch with his emotions. Toby: …………………I can do that.
  9. Tyler Perry in EVERYTHING 
    This year he had the distinction of sucking in not just his own movies (he did, what, six last year?) but Star Trek too!
  10. Robert Pattenson in New Moon
  11. Marlyn Waynes, “G.I. Joe.”
    Dude, you’re not funny.
  12. Michael Gambon in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince
    Getting better just as he got, um, dead. And that getting better accounts for why he’s so low on this list cuz Gambon (normally a great actor) as Dumbledore is usually way higher.
  13. Vin Diesel in Fast and Furious
    This character went from charming in a very campy way in the first THE Fast and THE Furious to macho desperation in Fast and Furious.
  14. Hillary Swank in Amelia 
    No words, just pictures.
  15. Maggie Grace in Taken
    Maggie Grace (from Lost) is young and hot and a girl yet after watching this movie in which she plays a bubbly teen that gets kidnapped it is as if she has never been all three of these things. Okay only two, she’s still hot.
  16. Liv Shriver in X-Men: Origins
    The normally good Shriver takes all the teeth out of Sabertooth’s character. He’s just dull. I never thought I would miss the wrestler that played Sabertooth almost ten years ago but… here we are.
  17. Chris Pine in Star Trek.
    Capt. Kirk as a frat boy douchbag.
  18. Michael Jackson in This is It
    Oh, he wasn’t acting. Then what was he doing exactly?
  19. Leslie Mann in Funny People
    Ruined so many comedies that Mann has now earned the right to be called the Mia Farrow of this generation.
  20. Morgan Freeman in Invictus 
    Oh, come on people he was horrible in this tepid movie. I love Freeman, but this is not a good performance, it’s him talking slow, going on walks and staring off into a rugby field.

Most Overrated Film of the Year:
Avatar, followed very closely by Up. Avatar is the better movie (I still stand by my B-) but it’s shallow conventions and down right annoying moments get more and more apparent with every viewing. Up, however, was annoyign from the beginning and never looked back.

2008’s Worst Films (because I didn’t do one last year for some reason)

  1. Rachael Getting Married
    Audience Getting Fucked.
  2. Paranoid Park
    Gus Van Sant at his art houseiast worst. Meandering tone poem about blank teenagers that has all the feel and personality of an indie wax museum of people, places and events I would never want to see, go to or experience. GVS tries to pass the blankness as thoughtful reticence of youth but it’s really just bad, pardon non, pardon natural acting crippled by enabling directing. I love when the director meanders (Last Days and Gerry are modern classics) but with this film he wanders off the edge.
  3. Slumdog Millionaire
    The most overrated film of 2008 and the most overrated Best Picture winner since “Crash.” Almost every note the film hits is false. Cinematography, screenplay, music, acting and Danny Boyle’s lame use of style for the sake of style are all grating. I thought it would take a few years for this Oscar winning film to be forgotten but we’re pretty much at that point now. I don’t know if you got the memo but it’s officially not cool to say you like this film.
  4. Zach and Muri Make a Porno
    Another year another bad Kevin Smith movie. Kevin Smith: please go away. Not going anywhere, are you? Oh, you still have fans, good for you! Okay then just roll out Cop Out 2 and Clerks 3 and, fuck it, how about a Mallrats sequel. Smith is novelty director and the novelty wore off, oh, I’d say about fifteen years ago.
  5. The Reader
    To be honest I forgot why I hated this film so much in 2008 but rather than watching this prestige POS again I’m just going to go with my gut. Pretentious: yeah. Profound: no.
  6. Righteous Kill and 88 Minutes
    These two 2008 films from John Avnet are so bad that users in the wasteland that is the IMDB message boards are calling for his death. Ouch, but, gotta say… not completely out of line.
  7. Punisher: War Zone
    Hey, not all comic book movies in 2008 were happening. Some were just bad (Hulk 2-ish) and some, like Punisher, were just the worst. Just about the only thing this Punisher was able to kill effectively was any chance that they’ll ever make another Punisher movie again.
  8. Speed Racer
    Speed Racer is a beautiful film. Speed Racer is a horrible beatuiful film.
  9. Sex and the City
    To quote Jack Nicholson: SHUT UP!!!!!!!!! SHUT UP! SHUT UP! SHUT UP!
  10. Leatherheads
    Clooney, what happened? To build upon my “Up in the Air” mini-rant: For directing George Clooney in a rare bad movie, George Clooney can never be forgiven.

and let’s not forget…

Seven Pounds, Quantum of Solace, The Eye, Prince Caspian, The Mummy 3, Mirrors, The Bank Job,  the second half of Wall-E, Get Smart,  Harold and Kumar 2, Mamma Mia, Saw V and no doubt if I had been brave enough to watch The Love Guru and Fool’s Gold both would probably be on this list.

 

Review: Avatar

avatar
Once you go blue...
  • What’s Good: James Cameron’s dedication to the material is admirable. His ability to sell this half formed, totally unoriginal sci-fi story is masterful.
  • What’s Not:“A New World” meets “Dances with Wolves” meets “Aliens” meets “Princess Mononokie” meets “Fern Gully in Space.” A lot meets here. What there are not a lot of however is new ideas. Cameron’s inability to make the aliens ALIENS is confounding. Cameron is like a sane version Michael Bay who fetichizes the military war complex while denouncing it it at the same time. I’m also sore that Michael Biehn and/or Bill Paxton are not in this movie but Sigourney Weaver is so that’s cool.

Science Fiction has enjoyed its most prosperous year of the young century. The genre has not been this fecund since the year “Matrix,” “Princess Mononokie” and “Star Wars: Episode I” came out. It has also not been this overrated in years though I must admit that the sci-fi purist in me fears mainstream involvement in this genre so I’m naturally defensive. This year though: first “Star Trek” crammed that cocky, shit eating Kirk (Chris “I’m awesome!” Pine) down our throats. Then “District 9” turned a story of alien apartheid into an inept retelling of “Transformers.” Then, um, yeah, the bland “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” came out and, astoundingly, was not as bad as everyone made it out to be. Now “Avatar” has come to rule them all.

There is very little doubt that this 300-500 million production will not only make a tidy profit but may go on to become the third or even second highest grossing film in U.S. history right below James Cameron’s other blunt edged epic “Titanic.” “Avatar” is a vivid contradiction that poses the question of how could something so stark and visionary can be so unoriginal. Easy, it’s made by Cameron. Aww, nah man, I kid, I kid, the dude’s earned my respect many times over; Cameron’s work in this genre includes masterpieces like “Terminator,” “T2” (his most overrated film but still good by any other standards) “The Abyss” (his most underrated), and “Aliens” (an A+++++ film) are unparalleled in genre defining qualities that, “Abyss” aside, shoot first and ask questions later. That Cameron’s reputation precedes him is perhaps why I expect more from him especially given his decade long, post “Titanic” hiatus. The expectations are not so much in the storytelling department but in the powerful ways in which he is usually able to approaches stories. The result here is a mixed bag full of minor technical miracles and major storytelling blunders and a curious lack of real danger posed to the protagonist.

This save-the-rain-forest adventure set on a planet known as Pandora (that’s, uh, symbolism, right?) brings virtually no new ideas to the table. Instead, it grafts new technology over old ideas.  The ground it does tread it treads competently, but with all the narrative grace of one of the film’s tree smashing mega bulldozers. What we get here is a hearty retelling of a good vs. evil, man vs. machine, and nature vs technology tale in which an ex military grunt, working as a Backwater-esq soldier for hire, goes undercover and, before he knows what hits him, goes native. The central gimmick is that humans are now able to fuse human and alien DNA to harvest bodies known as Avatars. These proxy creatures can be possessed via cryo-sleeping humans! In their dreams! Nonsense! Yet nonsense that Cameron is able to sell effectively because everything else is so meticulously mapped out. Avatars are essentially flesh based video game characters and the hero, Jake (another original Cameron hero name–totally more original than Jack), gets a mean case of chosen-one-itis when he puts this new body to use. This avatar concept in one sense gives the film a semi-original approach(if you don’t count the other Avatar-ish “Surrogates” this year) while at the same time removes me from an investment in the immediacy of the hero’s situation since he’s not really there. The Avatar driven hybrids and, for that matter, indigenous aliens known as the Na’vi (which sounds like a snazzy name for a laptop or mp3 player) look convincing and at times posses flawlessly rendered realism but their design is a bit awkward. Their flat noses, strange heads, stupid tribal marks and grotesque bodies gave me, among other things, really bad “Antz” flashbacks.

The plot is so far from exceptional that it gives a new name to the term space opera. There is a lot of politics (and politicking) and tropical/topical parallels to imperial America, sure, but really this is just an space set “Romeo and Juliet” story involving a boy trying to win the heart and mind of the girl and her community. He is accepted by the alien clan all too easily and masters their ways in a manner of weeks. This story element takes up about two hours of the film so expect lots of iridescent plant life, prancing about and forced moments of adventure (Jake trying to tame one wild animal or another). There are enough 90s era Disney cliches here to fool me into thinking characters are on the verge of breaking into a show tune any minute. Lucky they don’t; unluckily, though, James Horner does and his score and it’s full of tritely recycled melodies.

The rest is of the film (and entire third act) is vintage Cameron hoorah military hokum. Humans invade a peaceful, nature loving planet rich in precious minerals whose value to the  new, resource depleted Earth is never fully explained. I’ve always loved sci-fi for the ways in which it is able to encode progressive message into the text. These days all sci-fi subtext has become text because we’re obviously too stupid to get the  message if it’s in any way subtle. While Cameron is being  praised for creating a new world, all I see here is “A New World.” While the romance is nothing new, the post colonial aspects are even more worn. First off, I mentioned that the hero enters this community like a space age Jesus (or Tom Cruse or Kevin Costner etc.) and that undercuts a lot of the supposed autonomous integrity these “savage” creatures have. In addition to that the cultural tropes are obtuse. I have no idea why people bash George Lucas’s anthropological aliens when this film’s egregious mess of Earth based stereotypes gets received with near unanimous approval and cultural cache. These creatures are Ewok’s squared. The peaceful and simple subaltern alien race (Others are aliens, get it!) are a crude amalgamation of African, Aboriginal and American Indian cultures and icons. What bothers me is that Cameron makes no attempt to make these alien underdogs actually alien. I just can’t understand how something so ambitious can be so lazy. Is this a prime example of  unintentional leftist racism or just bad writing? Whatever the case, the humans of “Avatar” are just as one dimensional (ironic that this is 3D then, huh?) with bullheaded military men, egg headed business men, even headed mentors and a Jarheaded hero played by Terminator Salvation’s Sam Worthington.

While I could go on about what bothers me there’s a lot to admire in “Avatar.” Sure, the visuals pop with a musty green brilliance and eerie fog but what I like most about the film is the way it inverts the sci-fi cliche of making humans the evil invaders (weare aliens) while having the viewer relate to the little (actually, large) blue space men. Heading up the invading force is a wonderfully wicked performance by Stephen Lang (“Public Enemies”) as the evil, Duke Nukem looking Colonel who steals the movie through the simple act of bringing some color, dimension and fire to a morally black and white story universe. Too many characters, yes even my dear Sigourney Weaver as the all too noble scientist in charge, are cardboard cut outs that this bad ass Colonel shreds to hell with his his twenty foot mech’s giant-sized machete. Now, as to why a fricken mech needs a big ass knife is something I’ll have to add to the pile of things I don’t get about this movie. Anyways, after all this inane, semi-incoherent ranting I’m going to put aside my objections and give “Avatar” a (barley) passing grade. I do so with caution and the illogical self awareness that I don’t always need to like a science fiction movie to like it.

Grade: B-

Review: Nine

  • What’s Good: The question of what’s good need not be asked when Daniel Day Lewis is in a movie.
  • What’s Not: The music. Being that this is a musical, that’s a big thing to not get right.
  • Nine?” Uh, not quite, more like a six or seven. The best thing this musical remake of Fellini’s “8½” did is remind me of how good the original is. Broadway/Hollywood’s update is a glitzed out and dumbed down version of an original that parodied the very same spectacle that “Nine” has become! I guess the the original Broadway writers and Hollywood director/producers of “Nine” missed that; “8½” is a foreign film after all and that means you have to read subtitles so it make sense that the nuances went over their heads. That huge contradiction aside, this film doesn’t work as a remake because it doesn’t work at all as a musical. No amount of new wave Italian visuals, “Citizen Kane” ripped cinematography and sparkly costumes can mask the taste of bland-ass music. I went with a friend and soon after the film ended she mentioned that she like the song where the beleaguered protagonist played by Daniel Day Lewis sits in a corner while his wife gets her revenge on him through a musical number where she is stripped bare right in front of him. Within minutes of seeing the film this conversation happened and while I could remember the image of a scruffy Daniel Day Lewis and a beautiful, wide eyed Marion Cotillard singing, I could not for the life of me recall what she was singing or, for that matter, just about any other song in this movie! That’s a bad sign.

    This is one of those rare musicals in which the story is better than its set pieces. I called it dumbed down and it is but it’s also something of a curious interest to fans of the original because here we have a crudley parsed version of a hallucinatory masterpiece. The predominant theme of male anxiety in Fellini’s version is hard to approach or understand at first but by end you’re infected with it. “Nine” is the cliff notes version where the anxiety of the lead character is quite literally spelled out for us (no flying dreams and only one childhood flashback) while notions relating to the elusive nature of art that Fellini captures so artfully (to describe it is to demystify it is the film’s point) is far from elusive with its big and bright quotation marks that are on display like a gussied up whore. Daniel Day Lewis is the right actor to play the part of Guido if only because he looks so cool when he’s tormented (I need not remind anyone of his past performances). But he’s also a bit too over the top this time.  He does lots of angsty pacing here as well as sitting crouched over with his hands up against his face like a tortured version of  The Thinker sculpture. Lewis, like Marcello Mastroianni, plays the Guido as a filmmaker who has nothing but decisions put in front of him and yet is incapable of making even the smallest one. A big difference is that Mastroianni was playing a version of Fellini while Lewis is, um, well he’s definitely not playing a version of thisfilm’s director Rob Marshall because the character in “Nine” is actually considered a great director by his peers and the press and is even called “Maestro.” At any rate, each decision and commitment, no matter how trivial, bears down on Guido like a runaway train and each is avoided at all costs, which, considering the budget of the film he’s not working on, is a lot. “Directing a movie is an overrated job. You just have to say yes or no. What else do you do? Nothing” the non-film’s costume designer, an Edith Head looking Judi Dench, tells the perpetually smoking Guido who clearly hears and perhaps even agrees but just can’t take that proactive plunge both as an artist and as a man. This is a classic struggle that is mirrored with very little mystery in “Nine.”

    Marshall, like his character, also seems incapable of making a choice with his film because the music is not only forgettable and antiquated but unnecessary. Marshall wants to make a musical adaptation of a play that was adapted from “8½” and that’s fair game I guess but he goes ahead with this endeavor without the support of the music part! Marshall’s Oscar winning “Chicago” worked because the music numbers made sense within the context and reality of the story world; they were the lavish day dreams of crazy killers and depraved men. “Chicago” also worked because the music was good and, when not good, catchy at the very least. The music in this film, like “Chicago,” occurs outside the diegetic story space but that’s as far as the film is willing to go with them. Guido will be dealing with one of his many mistresses/feminine infatuations (Nicole  Kidman the international actress, Kate Hudson the American reporter, Penelope Cruz as the mistress, Fergie the vamp from Guido’s past, Sophia Loren the mother etc.) and suddenly someone get a music number dedicated to how they’re feeling. Is he imagining it? Are they? Are we? I feel, though I’m not sure who agrees, that one of the jobs of a film musical is to accommodate the music itself. To find a home for it within the aesthetics as well as being pleasing in its own right. In that regard the music of “Nine” is not only tone deaf but homeless.

    I mixed feelings about “Nine.” The lead performance is strong (perhaps too strong) and the cinematography, while not visually original, is even more beautiful than all the women. And even if the refashioned story goes against the philsophy of the original I found it compelling when the music wasn’t getting in the way. Is that enough? Depends. Those who really like musicals might give this a shot, and might like it. Those interested in classic art house foreign films may also want to see it, but will probably not like it. Everyone else should just stay home.

    Grade: C+

    Well, here lies another high profile release that failed to live up to the hype. While I found the year as a whole to be amazing the winter movie season is the most underwhelming in recent memory. It’s as good a time as any to put this review season to bed. I will be catch up on all the stuff I missed (Avatar, I’m coming to get you!) and of course pulling my best of the year picks out of my arse. Video Games will come first next week, then music then movies, then best of the decade lists. Gwah, exhausting.

    Review: Lovely Bones

    Gandalf the White will come come out any minute.
    Gandalf the White will come out any minute.
  • What’s Good: Stanley Tucci as the killer next door is the best thing about this movie.
  • What’s Not:Stanley Tucci is the only good thing about this movie.
  • Lovely Bones is really, really, really, really, really… bad. I mean really bad. Really. Bad. Rrrrrrrrrrreally bad. In case you didn’t read the book, it’s better than the film version. Big surprise. “I’m Sally Salmon and this my story” we are told in this movie about a dead girl narrating her life from her after life. Her family grieves for her as the murderer sits in a room right across the street (IRONY!). As time passes she prances about in her very own Candyland… or purgatory, or something, I couldn’t actually tell and this film was not about to tell me so Candyland it is. What she does there and how that relates to what’s happening on our earthly plane is never explained, which actually might be a good thing seeing as how clumsy the film’s narrative is. Better to not explain than to to so badly.

    As poorly constructed as the somewhat similar 2007 mystery “The Invisible” is, at least the dead protagonist in that story took on the role of a detective who investigates his mortal death and, accordingly, can only be revived or go to heaven (I forget which; again, not a good film) once the killer is caught. Dumb, yes, but at least there’s some measure of internal logic at work. Not here. The dead girl played by the promising young actress Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement”) has no control or agency. She’s dead in other words. So then what function does she serve other than standing around and watching us earthlings with bittersweet wonder? None. The film is more interested in giving you goosebumps and being sentimental (father lights a candle atop a ship in a bottle for daughter to see in the dark storm of night ::gags::, father cries, girl’s not-quite-lover writes her poetry) than exploring notions of death, cosmic justice, fate, and the after life. Not being analytical about this stuff is all well and good in many cases (“Ghost Town” for instance gets a pass) but being that the sentimentalism falls flat while the exploration of the physicality of one’s death is not even a concern there came a time during this film when I wondered, and not in the existential sense, what the point of all of it was. Again, there is none. The film is nonsense, a hollow spectacle of style over substance over common sense that displeases to the core.

    Peter Jackson put his name on this film and I feel sorry for him. It bears his trademarks both pre and post “Lord of the Rings” which is as much of a blessing as it is a curse; there are swamps, there are horrible underwater effects (fans blowing on actor’s faces), there is death, there is evil there is good and there is fantasy. Oh, and there is also a lot of bull shit. I am officially done with this filmmaker because I see no future for him. I also pity Jackson because he seems to be in a similar (creative) limbo as his main character in this movie. After “Rings” Jackson wants to be known as a serious filmmaker on “Lovely Bones” when he tries to be that here his creative expressions end up more far fetched than any fantasy world he’s ever conjured up. The movie magic and visual mastery Jackson tapped into with thedecade defining “The Lord of the Rings” series has been negated by a duo of agonizing follows ups “King Kong” in 2005 and now “Lovely Bones.” A problem is that Jackson does not seem to have an emotional compass sharp enough to depict the real world. Fantasy and sloppy comic horror (“Dead Alive”) is what he’s able to do and do very well but anything else comes across as corny and amateurish. When he attempts to blend the two, as evident here, it’s a disaster. Where Jackson was once an clever innovator (“Forgotten Silver” and “Meet the Feebles”) and a cynical genus (“The Frighteners”–his other film about ghosts), he is now a schmaltzy middle class appealing hack that could match wits with Spielberg any day. (Spielberg produced this movie by the way and it shows.) More than anything though “Bones” is a lesser version of Jackson’s own early gem called “Heavenly Creatures,” a film that also involves murder, young girls and the fantasy world they escaped to.

    This film’s visual pallet contains almost as much darkness as it does heavenly color. Providing that darkness is Stanley Tucci’s George Harvey character, the killer of the girl who dwells in his Golem like layer that, on the suburban outside, looks perfectly normal, perhaps too normal. Tucci brings George to life with ticks, dorky speach mannerisms and creepy hobbies (crafting doll houses and making outdoor traps for ducks) and is certainly a potentially interesting presence of evil. What undercuts that potential is the fact that his evil is EVIL without equivocation or hesitation. By extension, the afterlife he sends his victim(s) to is the AFTERLIFE. While there’s a lot of talk of in “betweens,” there’s ironically very little of that in the moral or thematic sense. The metaphysical realm, full of rainbows and flowers and coronas of white light so bright I was half expecting Gandalf the White to pop out, is handled with such awkwardness, bombast and intellectual meaninglessness that the movie plays more along the lines of a Mitch Abom/Oprah book club selection than a gritty drama. “You are in betweeeeeeeeen” the dead girl’s spirit medium tells Sally when she asks where she is. Another line that had me howling was “We’re in HEAVEN, YAAAAAY!” and I shit you not, that yaaaaay part is in there too. In this Candyland giant boats in bottles (a blown up symbol of Sally’s father’s hobby) crash against mountains while night, day, snow, water, sun and the moon are all able to exist in the same frame. She’s EVERYWHERE, get it? Sally can’t really communicate with the living but in one scene a dead flower on earth springs back to life when the father holds it (what does that even mean?) and that seems to be the dead girl’s only real power and it’s as lame as it sounds. While the sentiments are all Hallmark TV Movie and Spielbergian drek, the painterly onanism on display in the “in between” reminded of something else, something far, far worse. The late nineties saw a unspeakable film called “What Dreams May Come,” another film about dead people prancing about like dandies in a celestial CGI world. I also happen to resent that film because it’s as empty as it is pretentious. The qualities of emptiness and pretentiousness is a total contradiction in terms but that’s what we’re dealing with here.

    Okay, so the fantasy is a big fail. But this is really a mystery one could just as easily argue. But, even there, as a murder mystery the film does not fare much better because in this world cops are inept, the mother splits town and the co-lead, a father played by Mark Wahlberg (as guilty pleasure bad here as he was in “The Happening”), sulks in his den, not letting his daugher’s memory go as he growing scruffier and more introverted by the day (which, for Wahlberg, is tough to endure because he’s so low key to begin with).

    Just about the only thing I learned from the director/writer on this movie is his fondness for extreme close-ups of fingers. What am I talking about? Fingertips, that’s what. Jackson cuts to them all the time be it characters skimming the dead girl’s journal, other characters skimming the killer’s journal or the killer coldly touching a charm bracelet piece he got off the girl. Yup, lots of finger action for those potentiometer fetishists out there. Why fingers? I have no idea but that makes about as much sense as anything else in “Lovely Bones.”

    Grade: D

    Review: Up in the Air

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    Hey, let's talk about luggage!
    • What’s Good: Clooney can do no wrong, even…
    • What’s Not:…when his film can. How so? Well, it’s pretentious, it’s tedious, it’s shallow and it’s predictable. That probably means this is going to be a beloved film this year–a film that will win awards and a film that you’re neighbors and casual acquaintances will respond to with “Have you seen Up in the Air, ohmygod it’s sooooo good!” Up in the Air has its share of nice moments I but came away from watch the film resenting it.
    • Faux Peter “hack” Travers Quote: This film will have you flying high on humor and emotion. It is a first class ticket to free-flight bliss. Check your emotional luggage at the door.

    The more institutionalized, mainstream, critically accepted or, to put it another way, the more Steven Spielberg like Jason Reitman, the more annoyingI find his films. “Juno” was irritatingto be sure but it was also sincere and winning while Reitman’snew film is all that minus the sincere and winning part. In fact, I don’t see any sign that the director is even trying anymore because why should he? Clearly, charm and the illusion of heart are able to get his films past the finish line and into audience/critic’s, um, hearts. By that definition, “Up in the Air” is his most calculatingbest film to date. Reitman’s feel good road trip formula (actually, it’s a flight plan trip but never mind) is patronizing and relies too much on individually pre-package sentiments to get its bittersweet message across.

    If “The Terminal” and “Away We Go” were slightly more bearable and slightly less patronizingthey’d be “Up in the Air.” You see, “Up” –I wish it was “Up”– “Up in the Air” I should say is a romantic comedy that half thinks it’s changingthe world so it doesn’t have to be that funny or romantic due to the pretence of dramatic importance heaped on with a great and obvious sense of awareness but no true integration into the material. It bothers me that this film gets a pass by the press and public on actually exploring any of its serious themes (lonleyness, joblessness, Clooneyness) because, hey, everyone will claim that it’s not it’s job but, rather, a bonus. No. The story follows a man hired by corporations to facilitate the firing of large amounts of useless corporate employees; “What am I going to tell my kids?,” “What am I  going to do now?,” “‘Sorry’ doesn’t put food on the table mister!,” “How do you sleep at night,” and my favorite “I’m going to jump off a bridge” are non emblished blurbs from what are essentially talking head “every day” Americans. Oh boy, that’s Serious Stuff, but it’s just propped up to give the film a sprinkle of context and flavor.

    George Clooney plays a well dressed nomad that enjoys the life of the road and, yes, the metaphor of a man literally flying from his personal responsibilities is that obvious. His boss (Jason Batemen doing the rounds by being in every single movie this year), looking to cut costs on the business of firing (really?), teams the old business shark with a up-and-comer straight out of college and “top of her class.” “Twilight’s” Anna Kendrick plays her without ever expanding on being that character, i.e. the challenge of youth posing a threat to the antiquated (but human) ways of the older man. She is a product of the new American business machien while he is the result of it. Personality wise, this sidekick also seems to be modeled after Reitman’s character Juno in, um, “Juno” except this sassy gal’s a walking cliche that possesses a flat sense of wit and very little empathy. The actress seems unsure if she’s supposed to be funny (her cryingscene) or serious (giving Clooney shit for not being able to “grow up”) and quite frankly so was I so I can’t blame her all the way. Faring slightly better is Vera Farmiga (“The Deparated”) as Clooney’s casual fuck buddy he meets in an airport and compares business credit/frequent flier miles (as well as fluids) with. At least this character talks from the heart (rather than the screenwriter) and also does an interesting job at selling one of the film’s only redeemingmoments with a cool plot twist at the end. I like this character because she’s the one thingin the movie that’s doesn’t remind me of nailed down furniture. She’s original (and has a great ass!!!)! Nothing else seems to be.

    The plot is dull because it thinks it’s more interesting and socially relevant than it is and the filmmaking is routine because Reitman has no real flair or vision. Even the music is wrong. First, the whimsical original score (Rolpe Kent who also hammed up the sounds of “Sideways”) makes what’s on screen feel like a sitcom (because it is!). But worse than the musical Mickey Mousing (aka John Williams-ing) is the wretched song cuts that play over the film to a point where they should be credited for co-writingit. The film sounds like a b-sides Juno CD which, given the plot, is totally off the mark. And nothingbothers me more than when the EXACT RIGHT SONG plays duringthe the exact right moment, thus taking me out of a movie even more because I’m no longer watchinga crafted work of art or storytelling but, rather, a commercial.  Hey, something sad’s happening, quick throw up some Elliot Smith. Lazy, lazy, lazy.

    As I watched George Clooney jet from one city/hotel/rental car to another I kept thinking of a moment in “Fight Club” of all things. Ed Norton’s deliberately lifeless (compared to Clooney’s unintentionally lifeless–jeez, is Reitman capable of making a film without voice overs?!) narrated montage about the absurdest prefab universe of travelingfor a living. I wondered for a moment what it would be like if that sequence was extended into an entire feature length film and realized that, holy hell, I WAS watching that movie albeit a neutered and crowd pleasing version. It’s as if we too are stuck in the travel purgatory of the film’s character.

    Purgatory is a good word. The production design gets old very fast. A better director would have found a new way of visualizing shots of people in lines, people sitting, people at airport bars etc. and I know that’s possible because I was just mentioning David Fincher’s “Fight Club” and he did it! That being said the pervasive flatness would have been intolerable without…. George. Ah, yes, Mr. George Clooney. I love em’ as much as any straight guy could. I mean, Clooney can hold a movie as good as anybody out there, even a movie that’s not very good with is a real feat. Here he anchors the whole picture with likability and delivers what’s expected except he also delivers his most grab-happy, attention seeking performance  to date (and, yes, I’ve seen “Syriana”).

    I fear Clooney had a lot to do with the emphasis of reaching out to middle America in the scenes where the film shows and puts a face to the economic fallout. I can’t stress enough how insultingthis aspect of the film is. The film contains no less than three extended sequences (boringly shot of course) of “everyday” people getting fired and blubbering by a staid looking Clooneyand befuddled Kendrick and each time Captain Your Fired spoke in his gravely voice I wanted to scream because it felt so damn self serving and unearned. But it’s not even like the rest of the film is good enough to be ruined by this social approach; it just means a bad film is being made worse by good intentions. Clooney is a lone wolf but humanist! He’s an island but really loves people! He’s, um, George Clooney. But he’s also a wounded child that finally gives into his softer side when he admits that settlingdown is more than something “other people do”–now give him an(other) Oscar, damn it! Look, George Clooney is great at being himself but what’s funny if seemingly impossible is that he’s been better and being himself! He usually smarter than the material but this time only seems to be pandering to it.

    Grade: Oy Vey (C- actually)

    Review: The Road

    The Road” proves that you can make an apocalyptic movie without zombies. The film is an unrelenting yet landmark work of science-fiction because, for one, the viewer is so caught up in the moment, in surviving with the two lead characters, that it hard to tell it’s even sci-fi. That said, this is the most dramatically rich (and oppressive) films of its kind and no short-cuts are taken. The film is true to the story and the characters. Sometimes so much so that it’s hard to handle.

    John Hillcoat (who made the equally bleak Western called “The Proposition”–a film I also love but am afraid to watch again) has fashioned this story based, of course, on the great Cormac McCarthy novel, with a very loose plot structure (the family is moving south for reasons unstated in a world destroyed from unknown reasons) but in a lot of ways the less we know the more we are able to feel the frustration of the characters. And that’s what’s it’s all about! When it comes to the central father and son characters the film is focused and that’s where it counts. With a strikingly haunting Great Depression era face, Viggo Mortensen is brilliant in his struggle to remain “good” when such moral qualifiers no longer exist. Yet he persists. He is not perfect and he is not profound, he just.. is and I admire the modesty and minimalism in Mortensen’s grounded performance. We may not know much in the way of context (the flashbacks to his past life are unnecessary) but we are able to connect with the spirit of the character who does not even have a name; we understand what he is doing and why he is doing it even if we, along with him, can’t articulate it. Sharing every moment of screen time, the man’s son, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, doesn’t ruin the movie and that’s one of the highest compliments I can pay to a child actor.

    The film’s production design is perfect. The muted and drab earth tones capture this dying world. And I don’t just use the term “dying world” as a metaphor. The world is shutting down. The temperature is dropping and life is on its way out. Hillcoat and his team capture exactly that. When the two characters finally reach the “blue ocean,” they take one look at it and the father says “I’m sorry it’s not blue.” There you go! Trees are skeletal and often keel over on screen and in a particularly effective design choice, do so off screen too as we often hear creeks and thuds in the background which startle us at first but become a fact of life soon after. Vegetation is withered and brown. Earthquakes reign down upon man like an angry God is shaking the world loose. Animals are nonexistent (and they’re lucky for it). The only thing left is what remains of humanity, full of scavengers, thiefs, blind men and cannibals (yes, cannibals). Mad Max had it easy, this is humanity. If it’s any consolation there is hope, but in typical McCarthy fashion it comes as such a great price that there might as well not be. But there is.

    “The Road” is one of the best post-man movies I’ve ever seen. I love that, after having a kid himself, McCarthy’s way of celebrating fatherhood is THIS devastating world. Still, I consider myself a student of apocalyptic fiction so my point of entry into “The Road” is through the genre more than the author and accolades. On that basis its a beautifully realized movie that, refreshingly, lacks irony, sentimentality and Will Smith.

    Grade: A-

    An Review: An Education

    • What’s Good: “Education” features three perfectly fine performances. That’s the only thing that sets this film apart.
    • What’s Not: Coming of age + private school + 60s = seen it before. Bland writing and uninspired directing. Bah humbug.

    an-education

    As the fifth highest rated film of the year (Metacritic) with 7 perfect scores and countless other fawning cheer-a-thons one would think this film would have more to offer. It does not. This is a very simple yet also a very assuming film. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a cute little movie at its heart but that’s all it is. So while what they say is true (it is nice) and what happens comes awards time might be deserved (Carey Mulligan is guaranteed a nomination) but “An Education” is just the kind of shallow feel good story to win over the hearts of America’s old and tired who want to experience this story without being challenged in any sort of way.

    Ms. Mulligan, the young lead, is winning to be sure but not very subtle in her emotional pallet. She’s smart, she’s nice, she’s a romantic, she’s a, well, Mary Sue. I blame the writing more than the performance. Mulligan’s Jenny is an overachieving student who experiences love (or lurve) for the first time but the story she finds herself in does not rise to her level of academic excellence. Ah, but there’s a twist (but not really): set in an all girls private school (insert naughty thought here) during the roaring-or-rocking-or-whatever-60s, the education in question is not one of acquiring knowledge but experience in “the school of life.” Wow, groundbreaking. It’s not like we’ve ever seen a plot chronicling a youngins’ personal awakening set against the backdrop of social upheaval (YOU SEE, BECAUSE THE TWO PARALLEL EACH OTHER) before, oh no, never, I can’t even wrap my brain around this groundbreaking concept. Despite such trite sentiments, this gifted young girl with her gifted young dimples has the ability to melt away even my icy cynicism–she’s like the Nermal of teenage girls in that respect. Mulligan’s Jenny is an intellectual shut-in who is a willing prisoner of her demanding father and silent mother. Her bubble is popped (along with a few other things) upon the arrival of an older man into her life in act one. From Latin to lipstick, Jenny suddenly finds herself swept away by a shady rich man and her family is all too willing to allow Jenny to go down this path because the man is rich and powerful. Or is he? Will she stay with the dubious cad or pursuit a life of the mind at Oxford University??? You know the answer. What I’ve just said is all there is in this picture. The plot is so linear that watching it play out provides almost no measure of surprise or insight. It goes where it must and where it has before in countless stories about young naive love.

    The film might as well have been written by a machine which, looking at who actually wrote it, author Nick Hornby, that’s half true because he hasn’t written anything true to his style or particularly original or not corny since High Fidelity. The catch in terms of how one judges this kind of film is that the lead is so winning that the flaws inherit in the by-the numbers drama are blurred to a point of forgiveness. Just as effective in an altogether different way is the jail bait scouting suitor played by Peter Sarsgaard (awesome actor, and doing a pretty good Brit accent as far as I can tell) who walks the line between charming and creepy so well that I would say the success of the film hinges upon his ability to make us like him despite our Spidey-senses tell us that some thing not quite right is going on here. While Mulligan will sponge up all the accolades (her cute-as-a-button newness is impossible to resist–could this be the second coming of Sally Field? ooooooh I hope so!) the real show stealer is the great and gifted and usually underrated Alfred Molina who plays her her father, a hysterical and peevish oaf that represents old England with their old values. The only problem is that he’s more lovable than than everybody else (made even more so because this is Doc Ock and the Mexican from “Maverick” we’re talking bout). Even here though, and all across the board, that’s all there is to it.

    In the end gives me no pleasure to be hard on such a harmless and likable film. But it gives me even less pleasure to watch something that plays it safe, has no fresh ideas and still gets awarded for its mediocrity.

    Grade: C+

    Review: Paranormal Activity

    • What’s Good: The scene with the baby powder. The amazing anticipation anytime we’re in the bedroom seen above. Usually the ghost just fluffs pillows but it’s still really exciting.
    • What’s Not:A very shallow film. The film does not even try that hard to make us think that the characters “should” stay at home, I love how a visiting ghost Dr. gets creeped out by the energy in the house and screams “oh, and the presence will follow you wherever you go… lata!” on his way out.

    It took about ten years but the horror genre finally gets its unlikely successor to “Blair Witch.” Which (haha) basically means that everyone will see this un-seen ghost movie once, and probably even like it (as I did), but, because it’s a gimmicky “reality” spook show where, as its non-fans love to point out, “nothing happens,” where do we go from there? Nowhere, this is the end of the line. Others will copy “Paranormal Activity” but none work because what’s there to copy? There is simply not much to hold on to or embrace in terms of actual content or any measure of horror mythology. I guess they could do “Paranormal Activity 2” set in the attic but anything short of that limits this phenomom’s had-to-be-there potential. Still, any successful horror movie that’s not “Saw” should be seen and supported.  

    Funny how just a few days after the art house horror-esq movie “Antichrist” arrives another film with similarities such as (a) there are only two characters in the whole movie; (b) the two characters are married; (c) the characters are trapped, by their own design, in a confined space such as a house even though they could leave at any moment; (d) the wife in both relationships is deeply disturbed by inner demons that, in the case of “Paranormal Activity” but not “Antichrist,” are LITERAL demons.

    This is what I call a Youtube horror movie where a house is haunted and… and… um, yeah, it’s haunted you see and… uhhhh, a dude captures it all on film with his new camera. His reasons for constantly shooting the house and his girlfriend is unclear because he doesn’t do anything with the footage except watch it and go “woah, look at that!” only to continue to stay in a house that is clearly going to hell. He’s a dumb ass horror movie character in other words. The premise is as a thin as the spectre. All the “scary” stuff happens in the bedroom, but only at night because ghosts love the night. (I have a theory that the new Leno show is so bad that the ghost snapped and decided it would rather entertain itself by scaring this retarded.) At night, the cool sound of wobbling energy (the ghost materializing?) is usually followed by a noise, a tap, a gust of wind or some sort of otherworldly ghostly resonance. If the movie “Jaws” has the tagline “Don’t go in the water” then “Paranormal Activity’s” should be “don’t go in the bedroom.” And on that level it really works! I for one scared the shit out of my sister who lives in my upstairs apartment and I urge everyone to do the same (to your sister, not mine please). The hauntings become more severe until the end where I must admit to have seen the different, and more subtle, ending than what was in the theatrical cut. I liked what I saw and hated the one you probably saw, which makes no sense. 

    Either way, a similar but vastly superior handheld or Youtube horror film, with a real story and a tangible menace, is the underrated “Quarantine,” a remake of the equally good but most would say better Mexican film “[rec].” That film has rage zombies that tear apart human flesh while this one has… an invisible ghost that closes doors at night. That sounds (and sometimes is) underwhelming but “Paranormal Activity” accomplishes its very basic mission statement of slowly creeping us out. And its hard to hold a film accountable for a lack of substance when I can’t look away from a it? The film is not really directed and the story is not really told but the sum of the parts adds up to a really effective horror film that had me h(sp)ooked all the way through. As is the case with “Blair Witch,” “Paranormal Activity” the film will be forgotten but the experience of watching it is here to stay.

    Paranormal Activity: B / Lasting Appeal: D

    Review: Antichrist

    antichrist

  • What’s Good: One of my unlikely favorite films of the year. A beautiful and stridently masterful work of art full of sensory images that’s also…
  • What’s Not:…really horrible and ugly. A Lars von Trier (“Dogville,” “Dancer in the Dark,” “Breaking the Waves”) film in other words. It’s also his best because for once he’s not hiding behind his art, he’s using it to attack us.
  • Playing Devil’s Advocate: The film is all sound and furry but no meaning. It’s a jumbled and mean mess of a movie. The only thing this film is about is how insane Lars von Trier is.  
  • “Antichrist.” Fuck! What are we to make of this? It’s hard calling something one of the best films of the year that makes you feel the worst you have felt all year. Lars Von Trier has set out to make a film about madness and the horrible things humans do to each other and has succeeded more than just about any director this side of Werner Herzog or Brian de Palma. The best way to describe the awesomely titled “Antichrist” is to say it will cut you and that if you watch it you will hate life for a least a day after watching. And that’s a compliment! Watching it hurts but its the kind of hurt we need and the kind of hurt that I could not look away from. As director Lars von Trier tells his simple yet disturbing tale of humanity’s masochistic dark side he heaps layers upon layers of artistic formalism and his approach is jagged and obvious but the effect reached his approach is undeniable and, after your done, unforgettable. I hate that Trier’s dirty parable was so well made because this is also a film I instinctively want to reject and tell people to stay away from. It’s quite mad but there’s genus in its madness and there’s no getting around that.

    “Antichrist” has only two characters, one a man and Other (capital o) a woman, who, by the end are both stripped of their humanity in almost every way possible including their gender markers i.e. gentiles. The man is a headstrong psychiatrist that seeks to enforce reason to chaos and the woman, his wife, is… um, crazy. During an opening sequence that is best described as a avant-garde horror commercial porn (classical music, slow motion, black and white, and, wha!!!, a shot of actual hardcore sex done by what I hope to dear god is body doubles), the couple’s son wakes up somewhere atop a hi-rise building, sees his parents having sex (in slow-mo!) and pulls a Clapton by heading straight for the window, falling to his death which is probably what I would do I if my dad was Williem Dafoe and I saw him boning my mom. Anyways, this tragedy sets off a chain of events that drives the mother to the point of Freudian madness (I have a hunch that she was a bit off before the accident) and, it goes without saying, in bad need of help. The interesting thing is that the “help” is what hurts. Is it a good thing or perhaps a horrible thing that her husband is qualified in “helping” people with “problems.” A few dozen night-terrors/angry-sex-beat-downs later and the couple are off to the woods, a lake house called Eden. As a qualified therapist, the husband’s project and maybe even experiment becomes his own wife whom he psychoanalyses to death! She is stricken with a condition that is obvious in origins but mysterious in its symptoms. This vague and debilitating illness, depicted with haunting perfection by actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, dominates the narrative and, if you look at it in terms of gender issues, touches upon themes of male hegemony and witch trials. She tells him the woods are the first, make that second, thing she fears most in life so… yeah, off to the woods they go. Here, the film has all the makings of a genuine horror story. Horror fans take note, the “horror” is psychological, metaphorical, tonal and achingly poetic. There are no monsters or flesh eating viruses. And the Antichrist in question is not of the “Omen” variety. 

    “Antichrist” is ripe with ostentatious imagery that claws at the screen and burns some nasty shit in your head that you won’t soon forget despite wanting to. Trees, hills, grass, animals, acorns, man made tools and of course the historical pictures depicting man persecuting women throughout the ages. The symbolism, allegories, Biblical metaphors, Freudian signs, surrealist imagery or whatever else you want to call what von Trier is doing here is handled with a most heavy hand but not unsuccessfully applied if you take the whole film into account. The story will be moving along in its own peculiar way and all of a sudden Trier will cut to a slow motion tableau or dissonant visual balled. Williem Dafoe for instance will be talking a walk in the woods while on the way to the couple’s cabin and, wham, his beautifully ugly mug (Trier makes great use of the actor’s amazing features) is now staring at the camera (and by extension us!) as the film cuts to strange and off-putting images of, say, a female deer giving birth as it trots away or a fox eating itself or a baby bird falling to its death. As these disturbing (in ways we can’t always place or consciously articulate) images wash over us the film further adds to the rich-to-a-point-of-choking atmosphere by cueing menacing, David Lynchian sound chords. These alienating, distorted and perhaps hallucinatory asides that characters experience occur more and more frequently once the couple in in their cabin until a point comes where the viewer realizes that the asides are now the norm because the weird shit has taken over the film completely. The film and its characters become consumed by the sadistic and controlling artist. So, then, let it be said that Trier is the monster of this horror spectacle.

    The film has been called misogynistic and that is… bull shit. Film academics are so politically correct these days that if a film disturbs us we scramble to dismiss it or classify it as something outmoded or the work of an “angry white male” and, thus, unworthy of serious consideration. That’s sad because it prevents a real dialogue from taking place. Yet all this film wants is for such a thing to take place. Every second is a prod to the viewer be it a pin prick to our intellectual side or a full frontal assault on our sensitivities; Trier plays with the viewer’s instinctual impulse to both look away and yet also sneak a peek a horrible things. Like the fox consuming its own self from head to tail, its almost as if “Antichrist” wants the viewer denounce it because that only proves its point. At Cannes this year the film got an anti-award for its horrible views towards women. Okay, but the jury then awarded Charlotte Gainsbourg, the wife, with a best actress award (and rightfully so). So which is it, fuck-wads? While bad things happen to a woman, bad things also happen to a men and, I must add, women do bad things to men and men do bad things to women. In other words: bad things happen to people! 

    If I haven’t referred to the characters by name it’s because they don’t have them: she (Gainsbourg) is called Her while he (Dafoe) is called He and the two make life a living and literal hell for each other. That’s practically the thesis of this piece! The film in other, simpler words, is in one sense about the evils we do to each other but is really about the evil we have inside us innately. In one intense scene (aren’t they all?) Gainsbourg says that nature “is the devil’s playground” and this theme is consistently evoked by Trier through the mise en scene. Pine cones drop like a-bombs, animals watch as if emissaries of the devil and dirt hits buried bodies like with w real feeling of organic weight. Like some twisted Werner Herzog film, nature does indeed have plans for the two. Nature is beauty and all-giving (a female trait) but it also destroys and kills (male). Above all, the film makes us see and FEEL that, while human nature is a force of darkness, its also natural. Humans at their core, and if viewed with human constructs such as logic and morality, are evil. If nature is the devil’s playground then human are the devil itself. The Jeckle and Hyde horror movie twist is that the monster was inside us all along.

    During one of the many day dreams we experience a fox, after eating its own tail, turns to Williem Dafoe and actually speaks. “Chaos reigns” he growls. I laughed at the ridiculousness of this absurd moment (which are not uncommon by the way) but at the same time was haunted by the lasting impression it left–one of surreal hopelessness and total consumption at the hands of the chaotic void from which we all spring from and perpetuate. As the final shot (which appears at first to be ants walking up a hill… except they’re not ants, they’re people–women to be exact) fades the parting line of the film is a dedication to Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. I laughed again here because it should have been David Lynch.

    Grade: A

    Review: Zombieland

    • What’s Good: A bright and fun zombidy. Funny horror films are making a comeback and that there’s the best cinematic trend of 2009.
    • What’s Not: Way too short. The film is so fun I wanted more. Though I really feel the amusement park final act could have been reworked or even rethought.   

    Mah zambah eeeeett harmanz brahnz…nerrrgggg….orhhh, nnnnnh brahnz thhhhann uurrr thhhheennn goooo merveeee urrr waaaacchhh….lkkee ehhhhttt loooot… almmm aaaa gooooo aaaa brahnz.

    I’ve never seen a zombie movie in which characters squirt on some hand sanitizer after smokeing a gaggle (what is the plural term for a zombies anyway?) of undeads. I’ve also never seen one in which the cause of the zombie plague is revealed to be bad hamburger meat. “You’ve heard of mad cow? well this is mad human” the protagonist states in the most casual, matter of fact manner possible. I once thought that the splendid and, at the time of their release, refreshing combo of Max Brooks’ deadpan “historical” zombie fiction satire novel “World War Z” and the only Romero approved post Romero zombie film ever, “Shaun of the Dead,” was the logical end-point for outre zombie humor. But, like a glistening appitezing nugget of brain matter, newcomer Ruben Fleiscer’s palatable, instantly/insatiably enjoyable “Zombieland” has come along to prove that not only is it not the end of zombie humor but that there may be no end in terms of comic possibilities. Zombies are funny: this film laughs at them.

    This may be the best zombie movie ever made that, on the diegetical surface, adds almost nothing new or notable to the genre except for that whole mad human virus origin. There’s nothing really original about the film but, like a lot of simple but fun comedies, there doesn’t need to be. This isn’t a parody either, which would have been quite easy if the influx of trendy zombie student films is any gauge. Like any post-human meal, the film is all parts: the humor of “Shaun,” the last stand guts and bravado of “Dawn of the Dead,” and the fourth wall breaking aesthetics of the Russian horror cluster fuck “Night Watch.” The nebbish, irritable bowl surviving protagonist, who is the kind of character that would result if Woody Allen had an ass baby with Holden Caulfield, learns to live by the creed of a boorish new partner he encounters on the road to nowhere, that of “enjoy(ing) the little things” in an existence full of pants shitting dread (and I mean that literally). He’s right, and why not apply that dime store philosophy to the film because once you as the viewer stray off the path to look at the big things (like structure, plotting and the entire second half of the film) you see how unremarkable “Zombieland” actually is. The little stuff  –consisting of mostly the main character describing details of his world, quick one liners and sight gags– though, it’s got covered and covered so well that you aren’t even aware of anything else.

    The film stars Jesse Eisenberg who was in “Adventureland, of which “ZombieLAND” is nota sequel though oddly enough it is also set in an amusement park, and “The Squid and the Whale.” In a welcome turn of events, Eisenberg is the new Michael Cera for people who don’t think Michael Cera is all that in terms of range or humor or, uh, range of humor. Eisenberg is fantastic because its not often we get to see a horror movie protag spazzing (as opposed to shooting) his way through a zombie apocalypse. This kind of fragile, self effacing personality works really well within the usually rigid confines of this subgenre. Woody Harrlson is the aforementioned partner who gets a lot of laughs out of his hillbilly act of shooting first and asking dumb questions later (ah, I love Woody). Playing a mix between father figure and frat buddy, Woody steals the show and doesn’t even have to try that hard to push the laughs as I suspect he’s just naturally funny. Like that squirrel from “Ice Age,” the running subplot where Woody searches high and low for one of the last remaining Twinkies on earth is perfect in its genus stupidity. Another big time show stealer is a cameo that I won’t mention even though it will very quickly grow become legend–the thrill of not seeing this cameo coming added so much to the experience of watching “Zombieland.” The film also stars Emma Stone, who is Mila Kuntis for people who don’t think Mila Kuntis is all that which, admittedly, is not as many people as Cera but… getting sidetracked, sorry. Her partner is played by the significantly better actress Abagael Breslin and the two gals, in another nice genre/character twist, are the masculine troublemakers who constantly one up the male duo. Breslin and Harrilson, the film’s “real” stars, ironically take a back seat to the lesser knowns but the formula works better that way. I am tempted to say this is a pivotal performance for young Breslin who proves here to be totally able to escape the soul crushing clutches of kid actor-dom.

    This is not just a zombie movie but a zombie road trip movie. We don’t get many of those even though it seems like an obvious setting. Sure, to some degree, almost all Z movies start off all road trippy but most if not all settle into a semi-logical narrative holding pattern where the running characters find themselves cornered by the horde of flesh eaters in a house or bunker or tall building or barn or take your pick. This film starts on the road and stays on on the road and if it can be faulted for anything it’s that it isn’t long enough! “Zombieland” really could have used a longer middle section –more random zombie bashing fun or weird antidotes or, my favorite, zombie “kill of the week” flashbacks– but I think the writers and director felt like they had to cram in an obligatory plot when that is the least interesting and/or essential part of what makes “Zombieland” so entertaining.  

    Getting back to the road, I am reminded of one of my favorite current run graphic novels called “Walking Dead” by Robert Kirkman. That sprawling series, however brilliant it tends to be, has zero sense of humor about zombies or the absurd situations humans find themselves in a world run by them. This film on the other hand contains a lot of humor and even lot of heart but not much else. The writing does a fine job of relaying the first two aspects and doesn’t even bother with trying to establish anything else. Again, it has not obligation to so it won’t be faulted. The directing is also interesting in that it starts off in the vein of Zach Snyder–the slow motion zombie attack on fat people, business people, old people etc. opening credit montage (a stylized hoot) and a manic introduction to the ways of world we now live in implies that the film is going to hit us with a flurry of style and gore but it wisley levels off into a more standard, unobtrusively made horror comedy that allows great sight gags and character moments to be the real focus.

    Is this movie a zombie classic? I’m not sure. The jokes, often too clever by half but clever nonetheless, need some time to settle with me (will it hold up on a second viewing… I think so) but I feel this one has a good shot of enduring and, now that it’s made some money, hopefully even becoming a series. As I said in my “Drag Me To  Hell” review. we could use more humor in our horror.

    grade: B