Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Last Call for 2009

The year is winding down. Here are the last stragglers for the Christmas week. I don't know what I'll get to this week. Something, I hope.

I was really irritated with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009, directed by David Yates) the first time through. I don't know if it's the fault of the filmmakers or the DVD transfer, but the damned thing was so dark that there were long stretches where I couldn't actually tell what was going on on the screen. Annoying. The second time through, I adjusted the brightness and contrast on my tv to compensate. I don't know that it was much of an improvement, but it did save on the eyestrain. The Potter movies continue to get metaphorically darker, too, which they take from the books. This is adapted from the darkest at heart of the books, but like the last film in the sequence, it seems like it rushes from set-piece to set-piece in order to get everything in. It's all plot at the expense of character. Still, it's not all bad. Daniel Radcliffe has grown into a pretty good actor, and Emma Watson finally gives a performance that's not all twitches with eyebrows and her mouth. I'll be interested to see how they do in the final story, now that they've been stripped of mentors and allies.

I think I was sitting too close to the screen for Guy Ritchie's version of Sherlock Holmes (2009), because the visual image was really soft. Checking the technical specs of the film, I find that it was filmed with both a 35mm camera and a HDTV camera, which explains, perhaps, why the image is softer at some points than others. In any event, the film is visual mud. I liked Downey and Law as Holmes and Watson, but I think turning Holmes into a kind of super action hero was a bad idea (I should note, however, that there is some justification for it in Doyle). I liked the presence of Professor Moriarty. I hated the way the movie uses him as a franchise builder. For the most part, this is a film for which I should have waited until it came out on home video.

Don't ask me what I was doing watching Punisher: War Zone (Lexi Alexander, 2008). I mean, this is a character who hasn't exactly had the best cinematic track record. I will say that I was curious to see Ray Stevenson in the part, having really enjoyed watching him in Rome. I was also curious to see another action film directed by a woman (and to see if Lexi Alexander is a patch on Kathryn Bigelow--she's not). Actually, the action sequences aren't bad. The glue that holds them all together, on the other hand, is awful. Every time a character opens his or her mouth to speak, you have to cover your ears. Stevenson comes off the best, mainly by virtue of having so few lines. I will also admit to laughing out loud at one scene where a petty crook is handcuffed to a chair as the FBI agent on the case negotiates with him, only to have the Punisher walk in and blow his head off. I guess you had to be there. Otherwise, this pretty much sucked.

I also watched District 9 (2009, directed by Neil Blomkamp) again because my partner hadn't seen it. It doesn't hold up well to multiple viewings, in part because I really hate everyone in the movie and I hate that it uses the "white savior" archetype. Odious.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Decade: The Horror Movies

The "'aughts" have been a pretty good decade for horror movies. For the last several years, I've been saying that this has been one of the genre's periodic golden ages. Unlike previous golden ages, you would never know it from the marquee at your local multiplexes. Most of the real action in the genre has been pretty sub rosa. While Hollywood studios have been recycling the genre's past successes with ever-diminishing returns, seriously great horror movies have been creating waves just below the surface. Here are some of my favorites, in no particular order. Keep in mind that I have some idiosyncratic ideas about what constitutes a horror movie, so if you think one or another of my selections don't actually qualify, feel free (but I don't really want to hear about it). Anyway...links are to old reviews of these movies both here and on my old stand-alone web site.

A Tale of Two Sisters--A puzzle movie and a ghost movie and a showcase for the craft of film making (as many Korean films these days are), this takes the tropes of this decade's Asian horror movies and applies them as an elaborate ruse as we plunge into traumatic memories in a fractured narrative.

Frailty--A religious horror movie that manages the tricky feat of disturbing the viewer regardless of his or her stance on matters of faith. From my perspective, it's a harrowing portrait of the way fundamentalism distorts families, but it pulls the rug out from underneath that quite nicely. Terrific performances, particularly from director Bill Paxton.

May--A film that drinks deep the wine of loneliness. Angela Bettis is superb as a downtrodden outsider, and the ending of this film is kind of magical even while it is deeply horrifying.

Let the Right One In--My favorite queer horror film of the decade, and also a chilly examination of the horrors of childhood.

The Devil's Backbone--I think this movie really kicks into high gear when the ghost of the murdered boy, Santi, walks away from his place of haunting and pursues our young hero through the halls of his boarding school. All bets are off at this point, and when the movie lets the horrors of war intrude at the end, it goes for the throat. A piece of work, this film.

The Host--The monster movie as family farce, this throws the script for the monster movie out the window and marches to its own drummer. It contains, possibly, THE best scene of gigantic monster mayhem ever put on film, and it puts it right up front.

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer--The return of the Gothic, this is a twisted examination of obsession, shot through with fairy tale elements from the darkest of European folklore. But where it really excels is in finding a cinematic equivalent of smell. It doesn't even need to rely on smell-o-rama cards.

Inside--Probably the most relentless horror movie of the decade, this pursues its grinding horror with single-minded brutality. That it's even watchable is some kind of miracle, but it pulls this trick by mating its instinct for visceral horror with a surprisingly deft command of suspense film making. Bracing.

Pan's Labyrinth--One of the GREAT fantasy films, this is a companion piece to The Devil's Backbone. Like that film, it throws children into the horrors of war. But it also provides a dream life of children that is, in some ways, just as horrifying.

Spider Forest--The horror movie as epistemological mind fuck, or perhaps it's a cubist horror movie. Whatever it is, it's another fractured narrative from Asia that arrives in the territory of the Gothic novel and its descendants.

For the most part, though, this has been such a rich decade that ten films are just too few to really give a coherent snapshot of the state of the art. I could easily have gone in other directions. Some other suggestions:

The Others
Drag Me to Hell
Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary
Dawn of the Dead
The Descent
Seance (Kurosawa's remake of Seance on a Wet Afternoon)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
The Ruins
...and any number of other films.

Those people who complain that horror is dead are morons, by the way. There has been quality filmmaking in every sector of horror filmmaking: in the mainstream, in the indie sector, on every continent, and in a broader range of sub-genres than has held sway in a very long time. It's good to be a horror fan right now.

Friday, December 18, 2009


So I went to see Dead Snow (2009, directed by Tommy Wirkola) last night and I think it's a movie that's going to suck on home video unless you can find a way to make it into a party.

Mind you, I had a great time at this movie, in part because I went to see it with a relatively large audience (that skewed surprisingly female) with my friend, Anna. We went to a microbrewery beforehand for dinner, so we were in a good mood. A good mood is paramount for this film, because if you're not in one, you'll get pissed off by it. The set-up is familiar, of course: vacationing young people in a remote cabin with no cell phone signal, beset on all sides by zombies (Nazi zombies, no less). It knows its cinematic roots (it explicitly name checks Peter Jackson's Braindead and The Evil Dead Movies), even if it was made in Norway, and, further, it hits the notes by rote. The role of each character is pretty much obvious from the get go, and they make their respective gore-strewn exits in more or less the order you think.

There are a lot of things to like. This film makes creative use of intestines, including one image that might elicit a spit-take if you're drinking at the time, and another in which a character witnesses their own disembowelment in a POV shot. It has an arresting visual design, too, which, much like the wood chipper scene in Fargo, uses the white landscape to spray oodles of blood in high contrast. It's a design that mirrors the colors of the Nazi uniforms worn by the zombies. But, frankly, I've seen this film before, and so have you. Lots of times. I didn't resent it, really--I don't insist on the thrill of the new--but it was disappointing.

That said, the experience of watching it made it fun. Find your best girlfriend and see it with an audience. That makes it a fun, communal experience, even if you have seen it all before. Movies can be a terrific social activity, after all. I like it a lot better than going to church or bowling, frankly.

Still and all, I can't really hate a movie that ends with the line "Oh, fuck."