Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Pretentious List

I couldn’t make ten films, nor were these on the whole the deepest films I saw this year. Just they were the best ones released this year, ones I loved for different reasons.
There Will Be Blood - An oppressive, moody crazy film, about a greedy bug-shit crazy oilman, who travels around with his adopted son, stealing off the gullible, creating a subtle war with the local preacher, making loads of money even though that‘s not his real love. His love is the land dominates, of mining, everything driving towards working the land, even as he ruins everything. It may have won a lot of acclaim but this is a crazy film, which is its charm. Has lots of silent sequences, giving character and life through mood and glances, all cinematic. Second great film, after Punch-Drunk Love, from Paul Thomas Anderson.
Silent Light - A near silent film. The story of adultery within a religious farm community, done with long silent shots that slowly grips with the details, with the story slowly developing in subtle actions that aren’t locked down to obvious behaviour. Best moment is the death of the wife by the side of the road, while the end is the a little too Dreyer-influenced but doesn’t really matter.
Rescue Dawn - A Werner Herzog epic, about a pilot in Vietnam shot down behind enemy lines and becoming a POW. While its an escape film, the story is structured of a man against nature, both in terms of the jungle, that traps him, with foliage, disease and lack of a sense of direction, to the other men, who, who prisoner or not, are as ambiguously dangerous as the jungle. Has a career best Christian Bale performance, who’s genuinely more crazy and expressive than he is ever allowed as Batman or on any other mainstream film. Steve Zahn is also great as the desperate sidekick also tried to escape. Amazing sense of dangerous atmosphere through-out.
Speed Racer - Have already written about this so will be brief. Its wonderful. Has split-screen, a delightful retro look and emotional feel, stunning chases, a deranged chimp. What’s not to love. First twenty minutes are especially lovely, jumping back and forward in time with real confidence. The cross-country race is the chase at the most genuinely excessive, no action scene in the rest of the year coming even close for cinematic invention.
Step Brothers - Brilliantly deranged film about bonding between two men who have yet to grow up, even though they are in their forties. What’s great is that it takes its point of view from the central characters, never trying to move away from that. So the details always give great humour and character, as well as a free-wheeling plot that wonderfully refuses to come together. Which is correct for a comedy.
Hellboy 2: The Golden Army - A Ray Harryhausen-type monster movie, with Hellboy fighting monsters who’s views he finds sympathy with, in an attempt to save the world. What’s terrific about this film that it knows what it is, which is a poetic monster action movie, doesn’t have any shame in regard to itself. Has wonderful sequences through-out, is wall-to-wall with them actually, highlights including a great throwback-style credit sequence and an amazing scene where Hellboy fights a tree monster in the streets of New York.
The Puffy Chair - A little film about a couple slowly breaking up and going nuts with each other during a road trip, they trapped with the man’s brother. They are stuck with an idea to buy the father a birthday gift that is something that is tied to what the central male character wants, likely not the father‘s idea of a gift. The film studies the three characters act childishly, stupidly, sometimes with a little self-knowledge, capping it off with a brilliantly twisted ending, using one character’s cowardness to a pretty devastating effect. Is a very well acted film.
Redacted - It’s flawed in some ways, the acting a bit broad, but its about people playing to the camera and revealing themselves unconsciously. The idea that these men go crazy and rape and kill the people they are meant to protect is an old one but helps make the point of the insanity of a military occupation that refuses to make sense, the film parodying the idea of the normal liberal film to show the nasty anger and frustration lying below supposed civilised representation and distance, the film knowing that its own narrative can‘t illustrate the mess and making this a theme within its medium.
Bee Movie - A Jerry Seinfeld written and acted animated movie about a Bee becoming buddies with a neurotic florist and decides to sue the human race over its use of honey. Which turns out to be a bad idea. This is part of what’s wonderful about it. The plot turns out to be a bad idea. Most films wouldn’t have the guts or the sense of eccentricity to find that funny. After a slightly weak first ten minutes this film really takes off. Like Step Brothers its narrative is a bit messy but it goes all over the place in a wonderful way, has great gags, odd supporting characters. Its just terrifically cheerful, silly, very aware of itself. Like Hellboy 2, that’s what is great about it. That’s rare in modern film.

These are all very flawed films. To me, all have scenes and sections that jump out as being problematic. Yet the areas I like keep them afloat.
I Am Legend - Terrific moody first two-thirds, much of it silent, one man alone on Earth it seemed, was great pulp sci-fi set-up done well, until other people showed up and the film fell apart fast. Was great fun while it lasted.
Sex And Death 101 - A man finds a list of all the women he will ever sleep with, then panics. Takes time to find its feet, the first section too broad but once the central character starts acting odd, slowly going mad, it emerges as a twisted little tale of the nastier urges within the average male. The finale third is especially strong, up to a suddenly weak conclusion.
Iron Man - Its silly but well-crafted pulp fun. The plot itself is lazy but the characters and the execution of the origin story really pays attention to the details, which gives it a real thrill as the story evolves. Downey Jnr is terrific, especially when he’s by himself, building the machines. Too bad about the finale, which was dull in build-up then over way too quick, just as it seemed to be getting potentially interesting. Owes so much to Verheoven’s direction in Robocop its not even funny.
The Dark Knight - It’s a bit pretentious. And the ending is pompous. Have written about it already. It is an enjoyable film but simply lacks the imagination and sense of complicated tortured hero that Burton brought to the films. But it has lots of terrific moments, even if none match what Nolan managed with the terrific The Prestige.
Margot At The Wedding - Wasn’t a fan of this when I saw it, and it has loads of problems, is a film that severely needed a re-write to focus it. The film wanders all over the place, doesn’t have an interesting ending (it tries a non-ending to suggest complexity but never set up enough complexity to pull it off). But the film has stuck in my head and does have interesting scenes. Hopefully a minor film from a previously interesting director.

None of these are films I hate. They have nice moments. I could easily watch them again but they don’t have much direction or originality. So none are bad but they are time-fillers.
The Darjeeling Limited - It’s a very weak Wes Anderson film, far worse than expected him capable of. Its his Body Double. Its really obvious, has a terrible second half, and horribly miscasts Adrien Brody. Every revelation feels thudding. Yet its obviously made by a talented director and has odd little bits that work. So its more frustrating than an outright terrible film would be.
Quantum Of Solace - Have already written about this. Essentially miscast the director so the film never had the build that it needed, the under-writing feeling weak rather than base and focused. Still way better than the Brosnan messes but lacks a focus of Casino Royale, not the mention the subtlety.
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of the Crystal Skull - I liked the alien skulls and the fifties stuff. Essentially the Lucas-type obsession I liked. But the plot was weak and the father-son stuff was painful and badly written. The first twenty-minutes was also very weak and slow. Some second-half weirdness and odd visuals saved it. I like it better than Last Crusade, which I find to be very dull.

Had great premises yet never managed to do much with them. Seem better in your head than in seeing them direct.
Tropic Thunder - Where were the jokes? It’s a Three Amigo’s rip-off without the charm and oddity of the Landis film, nor does it have its own identity. The plot lumbers on in a stupid fashion yet doesn’t have the jokes that has been set-up for, the characters vague and one-note, never interacting in interesting ways. Only Robert Downey Jnr and his insane performance saves it. As a fan of Zoolander, this one was painfully weak and ill-thought through.
The Badder-Meinhof Complex - Incredibly stupid, lazy version of a fascinating piece of social history. There is no proper writing, characterisation is zero, the mood is never developed, its approach to the politics is laughably simplistic and never explored. You sit there watching things happen for two hours and never once know why. A disgrace.

Easy to explain. These were terrible, objectionably bad films. They stop you watching films, not wanting that kind of awful experience again. Not all were made this years but this is when I saw them. Have already blogged on most of these and can’t face writing anything more. This is a simple restatement or warning.
The Lady In The Water
A Very Long Engagement
Burn After Reading
Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired
Ghost Rider - Worse than Superman 4 or Batman And Robin. (And this is from someone who defends Daredevil) A film where reaction shots don’t tie into the main drama or action, where plot falls asleep for an hour and then drops dead on reawakening, and a love story between childhood friends where one actor seems twenty years older than the other. The action and effects are dull, monotonous, and when direction given for story, is especially stupid.
The Hills Have Eyes 2 (Sequel to the original)

These in some ways are my real top films as, save the top nine, were the films that really got me passionate about films. And there’s a lot. Not just doing ten. That’s way too polite and yet deeply boring. Don‘t worry, its not all highbrow. I have not one but two women and prison movies. And Bergman movies, which are similar but with less shooting.
Weekend, Made In USA, Pierret Le Fou & Le Petit Soldat - Four Jean-Luc Godard epics. Weekend is about a couple going from being a rich bored couple to revolutionaries, having amazing visual and emotionally odd and disturbing sequences throughout. Made In USA is a twisted take on an American crime film, changing the protagonist to a woman, throwing in Marxist theory. A difficult to define film. Pierret Le Foe is about a couple in a crumbling relationship, which gets crazier and more disturbing throughout, full of betrayals and barely suppressed rage. Le Petit Soldat is about a man trying to be a revolutionary and failing. Black and white and full of disturbing moments.
The Testament Of Orpheus - Cocteau’s final film, a beautiful moving black and white gem about death, art and relation to how to survive life, as well as how to live with your own legacy. Its difficult but very worthwhile.
Wild Strawberries, Face To Face & Fanny And Alexander (4 and a half hour version) - Three Bergman films. One a black and white film about an old man thinking of his past. It’s a gorgeous, unsentimental look at how time affects people and those they interact with. Face To face is a woman within dreams, going mad after a suicide attempt. Very daring, with a wonderful atmosphere. Fanny And Alexander is an epic about a boy and girl, who, following the death of their father, are forced to live with their mother’s new husband, a religious tyrant. It’s a wonderful, sometimes dark, very intriguing film. Despite the darkness of the subject matters, none of these films are humourless, all of them giving complexity within the confines of the stories.
Jan Swankmajar short films (DVD set, of all films made all up to approx 1990) - Spanning about 30 years of work, these claymation shorts from Eastern Europe, looking at humans, objects, their thematic interactions. A major piece of work spread over thirty years, never repeating, always moving forward with constantly with stunning imagery.
Looney Tunes Golden Collection Volumes 3 & 4 - These are different cartoons from various eras, from early, very musical number-based stories to the late joke-based entries. Some wonderfully bizarre cartoons, including the classics Robin Hood Daffy and Birds Anonymous.
Zabriskie Point & Beyond The Clouds - Two Antonioni masterpieces, neither of them getting much respect critically. Zabriskie Point is about two students, one on the run from the police after student riots, the other a spoiled brat having an affair with a rich man. Stunning desert images through-out, a criminally under-rated film. Beyond The Clouds is a collection of stories, all visually precise, especially a story set in a town by the sea, all about failed love.
The Conformist - Bertolucci’s stunning parable of Fascism, about a man who fails in life, emerging into Fascism because its easier for him, as well as a great impersonal fa├žade to hide his crippling demons, which turns him first into a murderer then a joke as it turns that he has chosen the wrong political side.
Christ Stopped At Elobi - A liberal exiled in fascist Italy. A long story, watching the man slowly becoming part of the landscape and interact with the people, who are kind but won’t let him leave. A lovely, complex film.
Shoah - 10 hour documentary on the holocaust. Interviews with survivors, moving from location to location, giving simple testimony over the horrors unleashed. Devastating through simple accumulation, some scenes feeling unbearable. It took me days to watch it.
The Son, Mother And Son & Moloch - Three Sokorov films. Mother And Son watches a son watching his mother die, Moloch about Hitler in holiday seclusion as World War 2 rages and The Son about the Japanese Emperor at the end of World War 2. All slow, moody, never gives obvious psychology, simply allowing us to watch and interpret ourselves. And its visually stunning.
Weeping Meadows - Three hours of Eastern European history, the story of a family, from a couple meeting, running away together, trying to survive in an unforgiving world. Finally comes the war where tragedy hits. Beautiful images, stillness suggesting an evolving and world and a struggle to survive within it. Images of floods are especially beautiful.
Damnation & Weikmeister Harmonies - Two Bela Tarr films, both stunning, moving, elaborate shots on depression, living Eastern Europe. Stunning.
Palms - A three-hour meditation on life, through shots, continues voice over, mood. Once you get into the mood its addictive, various emotions that might not seem to link come together in beautiful ways the way they would in an inquisitive mind.
Edward Munk - Peter Watkins epic about the early 20th Century artist, dramatising some of the history but mainly using silence, voice-over and a sense of stillness to suggest the inner torment of a genius. A true piece of art.
Bob Le Flambour & Leon Mon, Petre - Two Jean-Pierre Melville films, one about a gambler down on his luck planning a heist, the other about a priest during World War 2. One realistic, one not. Both atmospheric, humane. Both stunning pieces of cinema.
Pauline At The Beach - A stunning Eric Rohmer film, about a girl and her aunt at the beach, watching the affairs with adults. A mood of complicated romantic feelings and point of views, no-one ever truly sure what the want. An indispensable film.
Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… And Spring - A story of a boy becoming a man, finding out about love, loss, murder, before finding peace. Its a wonderful film. To explain any more would give away too much but simply has to be seen.
Show Me Love - Swedish lesbians but it is better than it sounds. A very interesting, subtle, non-exploitative love story, done against a working class background. Just a lovely, beautiful film.
49th Parallel - Nazi’s get sunk in Canadian waters in pre-1941 America, having to travel through Canada to get to the safety of America, getting picked off by fate one by one. Has great moments, such as Nazi’s meeting German farmers and finding another kind of Germany, which they turn out to hate, as these Germans show decency and humanity, as well as the Nazi’s against a writer living in the backwoods, who simply shows them up with humane ideas and competency. A beautiful film.
Sansho The Bailiff - A bailiff is killed and his family are split up, the son and daughter becoming slaves to the killer of father. They grow up, the son escapes, slowly tries to get his family back together, and get back the pride of his family past, fighting for the fairness his father proposed, only for life to take darker turns. It’s a lovely, delicate film, having one of the most beautiful and subtle suicides ever in film. It involves a lake and is so simple that it takes your breath away. Even though the tale has dark elements, inhumanity and cruelty are never allowed to dominate.
Cutter’s Way - A wonderful film about loss, about life failing, about how to deal with life’s failures, about people‘s disappointment with one another. I wrote about this earlier this year so won’t stick around but it was the start of Jeff Bridges becoming a terrific actor.
Inland Empire - An odd, non-dramatic dream of what life is. I can’t really write a short piece on this as its still rolling around my head. Just a beautiful film that will grow over the years.
Tideland - A story of a girl going perhaps mad in mid-western America. A beautiful film about the fantasy and oddity going on inside everyone’s head, no matter how normal they deny individuality.
Southland Tales - A wonderfully odd, messy story about Bush America. It may be silly, it may have lots of strange aspects that never come together in a plot, but it’s a mood, a story of emotional dysfunctional amidst your own stupidity, and those elements are integral to the pulse and heart-beat of Bush America. A weird twin to DePalma’s Redacted.
The Big Doll's House & The Big Bird Cage - Another two films I wrote about before this year so won’t say much. Just lots of fun, an unapologetic pulp. Women in prison. What more do you want.
Horror Of Dracula - Is cheating as I have seen it before but not for years, not in proper ratio, not in a transfer that shows up the wonderful technicolour. Has a wonderful sense of suggestion, in its erotic aspects, in its suggestion of sexuality. Its terrific in how it uses visuals to give its undertones, never explains, yet manages to be very clear in its interests. A beautiful film that ages wonderful.
Dracula Has Risen From The Grave - Same as above as I have seen it but not for years and not in proper treatment. I originally thought this was one of the weaker Dracula’s but on rewatching find it to be interesting, with wonderful moments such as the Castle Dracula castle hitting the tip of a church, thus cursing it, Dracula turning a priest into his slave, a savant who’s obnoxious a lot of the times, Dracula fighting an atheist and Dracula being impaled on a cross. It’s got a lot of energy that I can’t help but love.

I never watch TV shows when they’re made as most TV ads annoy me. So most are seen once the fad is over, with a few exceptions. Thus a few are older shows that I became obsessed by this year. And the reasons stated are longer in some cases as the shows can be complex. As the below list shows, I’ve had a great year watching TV shows. (and watched loads of Adam West Batman’s. Sweet.) So that’s the explanation.
Battlestar Galactica: Razor and Season 4 - I’ll be getting to this one as the final season begins in January but this is one terrific series about a society escaping from genocide. Last season ended with the nastiest twist in sci-fi television history (not writing what it is). The entire show is full of selfish, odd characters, a weird meld of politics, action, character and religion. Unmissible.
The Wire Seasons 4 & 5 - Will be getting to this one also in more detail. Even though it is now being over-hyped to hell to a degree that now seems to ignore the rest of television history, which is never a good thing, it’s still an amazing series, full of terrific character and breadth, into the cyclical nature of modern society and bureaucracy. Its full of strange, selfish yet intriguing actions throughout. Highpoint is the death of Bodie in Season 4, the kind of action that knowing the character for four years in various situations makes all the more tragic.
Deadwood (All Seasons) - A total stunner. I don’t like westerns and only started watching as I got a disc free on a season of The Wire (which still took me about a year to watch). And then the obsession begins. Will write more on this at some point but the idea of epic history taken slowly, from the point of view of those on the ground, not knowing where their fate leads, is usually never delivered upon. But this show does , focusing on the confused, angry fate meted out to the inhabitants of Deadwood, as the lure of gold ruins everything. The show moves forward in slow increments, with close contact grudges, communication between those who have to stick together but don’t like one another, betrayals that lead to problems lasting for years. All the actors are terrific, all have great moments but the Sweregen-Bulloch interaction gives the show a wonderfully confused, grudgingly tolerant heart-beat.
The Venture Brothers Seasons 1 & 2 - This one is difficult to explain in that it’s a strange sci-fi animated comedy, with a sixties style that has been left to wither and die into the modern era, has clones, magicians, and lots of nerds. Its hilarious once you get into it but will take a few episodes. Can’t write anything more about it without giving away what should be simply experienced to see whether you’re on its twisted wavelength or not.
Futurama: Bender’s Big Score and Beast With A Billion Backs - Bender’s Game let things down a little with its dull fantasy game section but the first two were wonderfully inventive sci-fi comedies. The Lovecraft with jokes Beast movie was my favourite, especially Nixon’s head saying “And King Kong’s too old.” Genius.
Robbery Homicide Division - A Michael Mann show that lasted about ten episodes before being cancelled. It was shot to HD, was about cops and stars Tom Sizemore. Despite looking like just another cop show it’s the best cop show on the decade outside of The Wire. Mann doesn’t do anything new in regards to moving off old obsessions but these demons have enough juice to keep the new show going. Sizemore gives one of his best acting moments in this and the story has a wonderful, continual sense of non-stop predatory madness fighting against responsibility. These are long-term addicts to street violence working in the show, which makes it a hard sell. Its not as good as Mann’s Crime Story (best cop show of the 1980’s) but comes up well with early, darker Miami Vice episodes.
The League Of Gentlemen - I was always annoyed by the existence of this show before, thinking it one of those hip new shows that get on my nerves, without ever seeing it. It just annoyed me. And then this year I watched it and got addicted very fast, buying all seasons, Christmas special, film, pantomime, concert film within a scarily short time. Full of odd characters and points of views, jokes that are subtle and performance/character-based rather than one-liners, lots of odd horror influences and instincts moving through a traditional English village. Just hilarious and genuinely odd. One of those shows you think it’s a miracle its so popular but sometimes that simply happens.
Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - It’s a nice little show, probably the least in this list as it can have weak sentimental moments, but does pay service to the films that inspired it, and does have nice little human and odd moments throughout. It’s solid sci-fi, which is harder to pull off than anyone would expect (as anyone watching the last season of Dr Who can attest to.) So even though its patchy, the interesting moments, such the John Conner- Cameron the Female Terminator sub-plot, the dysfunctional uncle, are always interesting, and make up for weaker moments. It’s kinda like Firefly in its likable minor tone.

Heroes - All I can write is that its still stunningly addictive in its awfulness. You know you’ll feel dirty in the morning but just can’t help it. It’s like a bad itch, a urinary infection, an embarrassing trip to the doctor. But at least its better than Lost.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Step Brothers

I'm actually writing this brief posting due to a pretty dumb article that House Next Door posted (as they are normally a very good site this one was a bit of a shocker) but it was about Judd Apatow (Guy who made Knocked up and 40 year old Virgin, and producer of many other films) and Adam McKay, who made three brilliant film with Will Ferrell, which were Anchorman, Tallageda Nights and Step Brothers.

Now I know when writing about film, sometimes the urge to be pretentious can get the better of you (or to out-pretentious the film) but this article

is self-serious to an absurd degree.

Its very old-fashioned as writing, seems to be suggesting (boringly) that the films by Apatow are better as they are more realistic, try to bring in realistic emotions and follow-ups to situations. Which I don't think they do. Now I like the films well enough but they are rude sitcoms, with more swearing and a few more pot-holes in plot but always end up back at a conclusion that feels obvious in the set-up. Which is fine. As entertainments they work well, are better crafted than most. But Apatow has only directed two films, so he is probably still developing but he hasn't really shown uniqueness as a director as of yet. His stand-up film looks promising though, a bit odd in idea.

As a producer he has been much more interesting, working on The Garry Shandling Show and producing the Adam McKay films. These are broad, absurdist films. No-one is quite human but there are stunning little details and bits of dialogue throughout that throw the films off into their own universe. They films are always taking on the vibe of their protagonists so these obsessions seem to dominate the look and mood of the films, characters always structured broadly around the main part, to up the absurdity, whether it be a fantasy news room in Anchorman or the broad white-trash family. Structurally they don't correspond the the typical three-act structures the way Apatow's do, while broad have people saying and believing things that are as odd as anything in life. (We live in a world where George Bush was elected twice, where religious maniacs of all faiths kill for obscure reason, where people hurt others for the most stupid reasons. A sitcom-type fairy-tale of happy endings and understanding is bogus). Any time McKay's films get near a typical narrative structure its to do an insane parody that will go on and on, with odd dialogue (my favourite "I'm going to pleasure myself tonight to the thought of you punching him in the face"), pushing the limits of convention. Which makes the strange motivations feel real and funny, if you keep your eyes open for how insane the world is. Its very much constructing what's going on, making it feel broad but still threatening, be as far as you can get away with and still be funded. Its very much in keeping with what 1940 and 50's directors were doing with noir, romances, westerns, taking a conventional genre and making it personal with odd character streaks, motivations, don't try and be perfect, see what happens. Step Brothers is a far more naked parody and twisted working on delayed maturity than the realistic take of other films of its type, of growing up, even though that's not what these types ever want, then playing on that instinct. Step Brothers lets all the strangeness creep to the surface, actually builds from honesty about oddity. Its the healthy side of culture. (and you know, seeing two grown men kicking the hell out of a group of annoying kids is the perfect way to end a film)

So this is my very base contrast and reaction to what I thought of as a very stiff, unimaginative and regressive article.