Checklist: Nine New Films To See In 2008

You have a grocery list, right? You also have a birthday list, a Christmas list, a work schedule and you even let Tivo list what you should watch. Over and over we catalogue our doings so as not to forget that six pack of Snapple or midday meeting, but what about films? One thing we rarely plan out is the movies we see from one week to the next even though we do, in fact, see plenty. I don’t know about you but I die a little inside every time I hear someone get to the box office window and ask the attendant “what’s good this week?” or choose solely based on the poster or, worse, title; “Hey look, a film called ‘Funny Games,’ that should be fun.” Lucky for you, then, that you came across this article. Here, you need not worry about taking shoots in the dark because I’ll casually dissect the bustling fall/winter movie season for you, sifting through the gold, the junk and the Jason Statham. So with this list in hand the only work expected from you, the reader, is actually seeing the movie. Just don’t come to me asking for a refund, these things cost enough as it is.

Week 1
The bad news is that you’re already behind so stop what you’re doing right now and hit the theater. This week will be easy. Released a few weeks ago, the film is called “Happy Go Lucky” and it kicks off fall’s buzz worthy films. Except this is not some pretentious foreign film or social drama. Rather, this precious (and non pandering) product is about a character who faces the world in the most unexpected of ways: with laughter and endless amounts empathy. “Oh! What-chu-ma-call-it ding dang dilly dilly da da hoo hoo!” the lead character, Poppy, chirps.

The dialog fast, fun, real, surprisingly un-annoying and so shot out of a verbal cannon that the pacing attains a flurried naturalism from the most naturalist of directors, Mike Leigh (“Vera Drake”). This first must-see film I’m listing is so particular that it comes across as if Mr. Leigh synced up and pressed play on two great movies of his and the effect, besides wowing the audience with a manic sense of fun, is the director’s most stylized and stir-crazy film to date (more so than one of my ten all time favorite films, 1999’s garish “Topsy Turvy”). “Happy” is sometimes a gag, sometimes a gawk, sometimes tragic, and sometimes all at once; but always in control.

This astute dramedy observes the happy go… you know, protagonist (an impossibly robust Sally Hawkins who, as she interacts with a world full of angry men, both young and old, still retains her essential nature. I find myself wondering if it should alternatively be titled “Happy, Go Lucky” because that comma, followed by the swift and (now) mean “go lucky” part also captures the hot/cold tone of this picture. Here is a character that, whilst facing hostilities from all aspects of life, feels, connects and acts in a way only she can, which is thankfully a way few do. Not reacts mind you as, sadly, most roles for females are reduced to, but acts. And what a brilliant act this is. A-

Week 2 (October 24th)

Okay, so week one was a gimme. But you’re still not caught up so on to the tough decision: to “Saw” or not to “Saw?” “Saw V” (opening wide) is a perennial gorno franchise (one part porn two parts gore) where the antagonist (Jigsaw) has died, by my count, more than Rasputin and the blond guy from the first Die Hard at this point. Whether you see it or not depends on whether you’ve seen the other million “Saw” films. Oh, yes, there will be money made. On the other end of the spectrum is a film called “Changling” (limited), a Clint Eastwood picture where a mother tears down walls and possibly even buildings (Godzilla style) to find her missing baby. I hear Santa Angelina Jolie sets a new overacting standard and, as such, is guaranteed another Oscar nomination—I guess enough people in Hollywood have drunk the punch and now believe she’s a good performer. Still, how can any of us not see a movie in which a character screams “I want myyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy child back!” without an ounce of irony. Speaking of irony, there’s also the ear-bleeding tween megahit “High School Musical 3” coming out this weekend as well. Assuming any line in America is not attached to this film, the line you’ll find me in is… Verdict: Changeling (though only because I love Clint Eastwood… yes, even “Bridges of Madison County” Clint)

Week 3 (October 31st through November 7th)

Forgettable Halloween films “The Haunting of Molly Hartley” and “Splinter” and limp Kevin Smith comedies “Zack and Miri Make a Porno” (I’m so over Kevin Smith at this point) dominate the last week of October. And the following week is no better unless you have children and are forced to see “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.” If that is the case then you have bigger problems than deciding what movies to see in any given weekend. So do you care about any of these films? Neither do I so how about we take this week off. Verdict: read a book, smell a flower, talk to your children and/or aging parents.

Week 4 (November 14th)

We blew past the first week of November and are now caught up. Yay. It was worth the wait because this week promises a powerful pair of titles to see. First off, it’s a Bond week and that’s like a national holiday for any likeminded anglophile. Daniel Craig has teamed up with Mark Forster for the latest Bond reboot “Quantum of Solace.” The film is about James Bond and that’s all you need to know. See it! That the director’s previous films include “Finding Nederland” and “Kite Runner” makes him the last bloke qualified for this machine gun totting/super emo revengin’ Bond. But, whatever, we’re going to see it anyway and we are probably going to love it. The second film release I must mention here is called “Slumdog Millionaire” (limited release) and this much talked about title tells the story of a poor Indian teen that defies the odds of a billion or so people to become a contestant on the Hindi version of “Who Wants to be A Millionaire.” Sounds lame but, trust me, this Danny Boyle film is on every film geek’s radar and will easily score a Best Picture nomination given the paucity of non-Batman Awards-y titles. See this film after “Bond” as a gesture of good will. Verdict (tie): Bond, James Bond of course but if you have a few hours left catch “Slumdog Millionaire” as well.

Week 5 (November 21st)

See how fast that was! We’re more than halfway through this season’s must-see films. And so far I hooked you up with Clint Eastwood and James Bond. Leave tips on your way out of the theater, thanks so much. This week is going to be tougher for any non-tween audience member. First is the John Travolta/Miley Cyrus CGI film “Bolt” (about a super dog or something… who cares). Second is “Twilight.” We’re doomed! If you haven’t heard of the “Twilight” novel series then come out of your cave and let me catch you up: Mormon, amateurish young fiction author finds a way to preach to millions of female readers about the virtues of abstinence, good grades, and giving up everything to “serve” one’s male “master,” a vampire hunk named Edward. Total sappy melodrama fodder with one caveat: it’s melodrama with vampires, werewolves and virgins, oh my. Oh, and author Stephanie Meyer’s books have become so huge that many say their cultural impact rivals that of Harry Potter, a series that was actually well written but when has that ever mattered? The fact is we all got to bite the bullet (which is before we bite the dust) and watch (…or, rather, endure…) “Twilight” so as not to be too out of touch. Don’t blame me, blame the zeitgeist for this. Verdict:::gritting teeth:: hello, um, I’ll have ::squeezing girlfriend’s hand:: two tickets for ‘Twilight’ please ::dies a little inside::”.

Week 6 (November 28th)

“For Christmases,” is a Vince Vaughn/Reece Witherspoon Christmas romance (didn’t Vaughn learn his holiday movie lesson after “Fred Clause?”). “Australia” is a Baz Luhrmann (“Moulin Rouge”) directed, Nicole Kidman/Hugh Jackman starring outback epic. This week also offers up the gay themed Gus Van Sant political biopic “Milk,” a film about a man (Sean Penn) becoming San Francisco’s first openly gay city official. In the ultimate bonehead marketing move of the year, this a film about homosexuals persevering and overcoming the odds on the political front that’s being released AFTER what is, or was, the most important GAY political issue of the year, the right to get married in California. One more addition this week is…. drum roll… Jason Stathem in “Transporter 3.” This weekend is so perfectly spread out that a definitive pick is impossible select. You have a big title for the romantic comedy crowd, one for those who dig epics romances and westerns, a genuine art house article, and, well, Jason Statham (a man who exists in a genre all to his own). Verdict: See “Milk” then see “Transporter” to reacquire your sexual orientation. Unless you happen to be gay, in which case do the reverse.

Week 7 (December 5th)

Hum, a “Punisher” film or a Nixon one. Is there a difference? The election will be over at this point but “Frost/Nixon” (limited release, opens wide on December 25th) hits theaters this week and will sadly face an audience that, if you’re like me, is burned out on presidential matters. The upside is that this is a Peter Morgan scripted film (“The Queen”) set during a time when reporters actually reported and presidents were the real deal (warts and all). Verdict: “Frost/Nixon”

Week 8 (December 12th)

It’s double D week! By that of course I’m referring to the pair Über prestigious/pretentious film releases “Doubt” (limited release) and “Defiance.” In one, a nun fights oppressive priests (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). And in the other, a trio of Jews lead by Daniel Craig (who, after this film and “Munich,” has become an honorary Jew), fight oppressive Nazis. The real movie would be to see Meryl Streep take on Nazis but she already did that in “Sophie’s Choice” and that didn’t turn out to well for her. Since we’re not going to see that any time soon, and since both films feel overwrought if their respective trailers are any indication, I’m divided here. This week also sees this year’s Cannes film festival winner “The Class,” (limited release) a film about a racially mixed French classroom in a tough neighborhood. Personally, I try to catch any film that wins the Palm de Or but this year’s winner will be a tough lesson for me to follow. Finally, the diametric opposite of that film is Keanu Reeves playing Keanu Reeves, whoops, I mean an alien, in the big budget remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (which is turning out to be this season’s “I Am Legend”). Verdict: Doubt is the safest bet though I’m going to catch every downbeat film released this week.

Week 9 (December 19th through December 26th)

Rounding out the final days of 2008 are a healthy handful of titles. Some are titles that nobody has heard of but are worth our attention nonetheless. One such film is “The Wrestler” (limited release) directed by Darren Aronofsky (“Requiem for a Dream,” “The Fountain”) about a retired bruiser trying to make his way back into the game… and life (he must have rented “Million Dollar Baby”). Sure, you may not want to spend the Christmas season watching a leathery Mickey Rourke hit the mat but from what I hear, you may be surprised. Expect Oscars. And speaking of Oscars, there’s “Revolutionary Road,” (limited release) the 50s-set suburban drama that reunites Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio on dry land. On the mainstream front, expect a number of strange sounding titles that include Will Smith in movie called “Seven Pounds” about a suicidal man who kills seven people in a car accident and seeks to atone for his sins and an Adam Sandler film about bedtime stories coming to life in “Bedtime Stories” (what an imaginative title). And who’s up for a film with Gong Li, Chow Yun-Fat and… John Cusack called “Shanghai?” More straightforward Christmas releases are the comic adaptation “The Spirit” (the poor man’s “Sin City”) and the popular novelistic adaptations of “Yes Man,” in which Jim Carrey is forced to say “yes” to everything (the inverse of “Liar Liar”) and “Marley and Me,” which I can imagine will make people cry, then suck, then make a lot of money. And though my fingers are crossed a on a release date for the on again off again Brian Singer epic titled “Valkyrie” and staring Tom Cruse as a Nazi soldier who attempts to assassinate Hitler (take that, Meryl Streep!), I’m betting it will see the light of day and suitcase bomb its way into our hearts. All that aside, one film has captured my interest and imagination above all others this is the dark auteur David Fincher’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons.” I won’t even attempt to explain it (okay, I will: Brad Pitt grows old while his love played by Kate Blanchett grows young), I will however attempt to see this surreal film at all costs when it is released on Christmas day. Verdict: A shot of “Button” with a “Valkyrie” chaser is the best Christmas gift I could hope for.

Review: City of Ember

Bill Murray + post-apocalyptic underground city running on fumes and reverting into the chaos of darkness + “Dark City” in the literal and figurative sense = win. A big old fat win in my book. A win for me (who loves apocalypse stories as much if not more than than science fiction), a win for you (did I mention: Bill Murray!), and a win for the target audience of this picture: kids (adapted from a popular children’s novel and 100x more thoughtful and lively than that time Spiderwick held up a Golden Compass for Prince Caspian). A win for all those reasons and one final, monumental one: how many post-apocalyptic kids films have ever been made and have ever been made well?

Looking at “Ember’s” less than golden box office numbers is where the win runs out however. Pay no mind, though, for “City of Ember” should go down as that super cool cult-ish sort of curio of a film where an engorged Bill Murray, as the mayor of Ember, a lived-in subterranean city from our doomed future (I loved how dust billows from every surface touched), hides caches of food, placates his dim denizens and tries to stop a pair of kids (a slightly more grown up Saoirse Ronan from “Atonement”…  hey, more win!!!) from waking up from their dismal reality to find a way out of the darkness and a way in to the “myth” that is natural light/life from our once fallen world. The decay of this city most definitely mirrors the decay of our humanity. Which reminds me, I consider it a win-bonus that film doesn’t push such heavy handed allegoric or symbolic cheese on us (ex. decay or darkness metaphors) because such things have a way of being able to speaks for themselves and exist inherently in the story rather than in the execution.

This brings me to my final point. Unlike most overrated children fantasy films of today and unlike just about all in the realm of sci-fi, this film does not fall back on CGI trickery or speed freak pacing to tell its story. Rather, it relies on STORY to tell its story. In addition, and as one last point, I have to say that the film contains the vibe of “THX 1138” by way of Alex Proyas modern classic “Dark City” with a pinch of “Wall-E” and a healthy dosage of Ayn Rand’s “Anthem” in the sense that this is a story about overcoming the roles and burden society places upon the individual.

grade: B+

My Emmys: 2007/2008 season

Best Shows of the Season:

Aqua Teen Hunger Force–this strange and wonderful season (aren’t they all?) of ATHF saw a leaking gas pipe destroy the house. It saw a vampire landlord. It saw Niko Case as a siren. Bible Fruit. Meatwad wearing Shake’s plucked laze eyes. The effect? Flawlessly freaky; a dizzying show that is, pound for pound, more purely entertaining than anything out there. That the season never got around to finishing itself is, somehow, perfectly normal.

Frisky Dingo’s second season–animation’s most amusing and subversive tightrope trick. Plots are layered upon plots, in-jokes upon in-in-jokes. It’s sad that the most incisive critique of politics and pop culture comes from a show about a butt naked (and kind of stupid) alien running for president (he’s got my vote over that phony Obama and fogie McCain) and an old man who makes clones of himself and can only say one word, a word that sums up the series; hurumph.

Damages’s first season–Wait, a good lawyer show? A good lawyer show with Glen Close??? A good lawyer show with Glen Close and Ted Danson? The fuck! Is this a joke? No, a joke is that one about lawyers at the bottom of the ocean.

Mad Men’s first season–Eerily similar to “The Sopranos” in tone and intention if not costume design and audience (this show has smart ones!), “Men” chronicles the hell that is male power, except instead of the mob it’s corporate suits. And instad of power it’s the facade of power that dudes put up to make it look like they know what were doing. Series lead John Hamm, the discovery of the year, has, like his character, seemingly come out of nowhere to become one of the most interesting and unique characters in TV history (he is the medium’s closest version to Daniel Plainview). Indeed, the season’s only glaring misstep in this respect presentes itself through a damn foolish attempt to male this guy MORE interesting when it probes the mysterious past of this enigmatic Korean War deserter turned ad-man pro. Still, it has to be said that the series staple of drinking, debauchery, child smacking and always subtle scripts developments (here is the only show around that leaves room for quiet moments where characters sit in silence) kept me glued to the boob tube.

Dexter’s second season
It’s no season one. Gone is the subversive thrill of watching Dexter balance the night life and day job, both equally see good ol’ Dex entrenced in blood. In place of season one’s secret thrill though is increased confidence in storytelling and a new found pleasure in watching the most likable serial killer of all time do what he does best. I dug this season’s emphasis on following a vigilante as he exhibits, GASP, restraint but disliked the trite murder “rehab” subplot, continual insistence upon dulling this fascinating character by subsuming in lower middle-class family life (i hate those fucking kids) and, finally, an apparent  re-purposing of the “bad guy” alter ego killer that Dexter must overcome by season’s end. And, yet, warts and all this is still this is one of the very best shows on TV. Certainly better than anything HBO has to offer.

Dr. Who
Forget “Battlestar” this is the best sci-fi had to offer last season. Some of the best writing in television or film last year could be found in “Dr. Who’s” third (and best to date) season. This season shook things up by pairing the Doctor (a perfect David Tennant) with a younger sidekick and giving him a darker, lovelorn disposition. The post-Rose season that resulted was not the predictable, shark jumping show many thought (and some still do) this would be. I defy any real Who fans to show me something better or more articulate than the episode arc were Who becomes Whouman, more intense than the real-time ship in peril episode titled “42,” or well crafted than the virtual(ly) non-Tennant episode where gargoyles (another Steven Moffat gem!!!) come to life when not being looked at. “Don’t Blink!” the good Doctor shouts from the future via DVD easter eggs. Trust me, I didn’t.    

Venture Brothers
A bit of third season slag, sure, but that only means the season might start to suck around season twenty. The tired antics of The Simpsons, the pathetic and hollow deeds of Family Guy and the hit or miss South Park get all the credits, quotations and fandoms but Adult Swim’s hat trick trio that consists of Aqua Teen, Frisky Dingo and Venture keep the animation medium vibrant and creative and school the hollow cutting edge-ness of mainstream animation.

Battlestar Galactica’s final season
Okay, still far from season 2.5 flawlessness but “Battlestar G” surpassed the dreaded, shark jumping season 3 New Iraq meyer with its unique blend of sci-fi action, politics and melodrama. It’s not that the blend worked (after all, every season contained those elements) it is instead that the balance worked. Balance is key here.

Death Note
Somehow, amazingly, still good. Post-L “Death Note” took a turn for the worst. How could “Death Note” kill off the most interesting foil/second half of not only this show but most shows? Idiotic, yes, and indicative of the show’s narrative randomness but kind of admirable in its rug pulling bravery. It’s like taking Moriarty out of the Sherlock equation or, more accurately like taking the Tango out of the Cash, the Starsky out of the Hutch. I still found the breathless one uppmanship to be the best the detective genre has to offer–take that “Mrs Marple!” The flawless pacing and style of Death Note’s final half also allows it to stands as the best anime of its day.

Guilty pleasures

Because there’s nothing funny on TV. Because David Duchovney is the man. And because sometimes, just sometimes, a line like “you smell like vagina” really hits the, uh, spot.

Smallville’s seventh season
Because when the ‘Ville has a season that doesn’t totally suck it must be encouraged. And because anybody that gives Buffy’s James Marsters work is not only generous but smart because he’s so awesome.

Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles
The truth: show is borderline retarded. Really. The voice-overs employ chess analogies and Lord of the Flies quotation and, in the process, are seemingly written by Sarah while she was in the mental institution. The actors (the random coolness of Brian Austin Green exempted) mug too much on their way from firefight to dreary firefight (shot with very little style or joy). John Connor epically is an annoying, whining, emo twit (save the character Christian Bale)-a punk-ass-bitch I want to grow the f up already. Oh, and the show is among the most humorless on television, next to “Entourage” of course. Yet, still, it’s Terminator! And I’m a sucker for forlorn talk of impending apocalypses. Or is it apocalypti? Either way, this show’s got it. I have a feeling that I should enjoy this low rated show while I can before it becomes as extinct as our planet.

TV’s Top Performances

  • John Hamm, for classing up Mad Men
  • Michael C Hall, for slashing up Dexter
  • Zeljko Ivanek, for stealing Damages
  • James Callis, for, you know, being James Callis on Battlestar
  • Glen Close, for tearing a new ass-hole a week on Damages
  • Brian Austin Green, for a truly surprising turn of not sucking on a show where everybody has seemingly been instructed to do just that, Terminator: Sarah Connor Chronicles
  • Katee Sachoff, for not dying on Battlestar

The Overrated

  • 30 Rock— Why do so many fall for the “multi talented” Tuna Fey. Acts a hair better than Fallon, her style (if style it can be called) is smug and perpetually self amused while her writing is labored and obvious.
  • The Office-Will Pam and whoever do whatever? Um, is this Friends? It’s sad to see a show that once sucked suck even more.
  • Heroes-the show fails for one simple and selfish reason: that it doesn’t appeal to a nerd like me.

Top Shows from 2006/2007 Season (cuz I forgot last year)

  1. Frisky Dingo
  2. Rome Season 2
  3. Death Note
  4. Dexter season 1
  5. Aqua Teen Hunger Force season ?
  6. Deadwood season 3
  7. The Sopranos (good for the first time since season one)
  8. The Colbert Report
  9. Planet Earth
  10. Penn & Teller: Bullshit!
  11. Battlestar Glatica season 3 (barley makes the list but it had its moments)

The Vast Wastelands Award for Television’s Worst

  • TMZ–fucking oozes creepyness. Hey, I’m as much of a Perez Hilton fan as the next straight guy (uhh… yeah) but this shit represents the worst that humanity has to offer. It is the single greatest case that could be made for the eradication of our speces. I get chills when we see the faux “reporters” pipe in from behind their stupid fucking desks, as if desks are needed for what these dregs of humanity need to do their evil bidding.
  • Jay leno–yee gods how could a nightly comedy show not be funny, like, ever. Cudos for NBC for finally owning up to how lame leno is. A corporation choose to NOT make money in place of keeping Leno on their airwaes.
  • Law and Order SUK–yee gods, how many diff rape scineros are there?
  • NCIS–yee gods, how many naval mysteries.
  • The Wire– not just overrated but in many cases just bad. The combo of shallow, coy, and pretentious provocatuerism is a dozy, and one that’s hard to withstand due to my ever so delicate bullshit detecting sensibilities. What’s harder to stomach is the intelligencia’s appropriation of this monumental jerk-fest (now with 30% more literary petigree thanks to Dennis Lehane!!!) posing ass high and Important crime drama. The only crime that I can see is how long this thing stayed on the air.
  • CSI Miami–::takes shades off::
  • Extreme Makeover Home Edition–like Leno, a parrenial worst.
  • Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty
  • Family sitcoms ranging from “Till Death” to Tyler Perry’s “House of Payne.”