Dec 31, 2007

2007 Year in Film

2007 was a year of trends aplenty, both overwrought and unspoken. Amidst the landfall of gargantuan threequels (of which few were worth their weight in box office figures) were a plethora of savory revisionist westerns (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, There Will Be Blood, No Country For Old Men), documentaries about topics both great (Operation Homecoming, Into Great Silence) and small (Helvetica, Rolling Like a Stone, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, The Cats of Mirikatani), and an unofficial trilogy of mind-blowing action films (Exiled, War, Shoot ‘Em Up) that, through their own particular stylistic indulgences, looked at masculine codes of honor in ways both thrilling and humorous. Iraq dominated the multiplex in theory only, with the limp diatribes of In the Valley of Elah and Rendition disappearing almost without a trace, while two of the year’s finest releases were actually revamped staples from cinema past: Charles Burnett’s 1977 masterpiece Killer of Sheep, and the latest (final?) version of Ridley Scott’s almost-as-great Blade Runner. It was a prolific year for animation, from the no-holds-barred surrealist firebomb that was Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters to the timeless American familial values of The Simpsons Movie to the dreamy landscapes of Paprika to Ratatouille’s effortless splendor to the political upheaval of Persepolis. McLovin’ and Spider-Pig rightfully seized the box office, while it was the year’s onslaught of gritty, no-frills genre pictures (Eastern Promises, We Own the Night, Black Snake Moan) that proved the necessary antidote to the rancid Zack Snyder/Frank Miller collaboration 300. A pair of nifty Stephen King adaptations (1408, The Mist) and two of the greatest zombie-ish films ever made (28 Weeks Later, Planet Terror) assured us that horror isn't dead, despite the hollow flogging emphasized by so many of the genre. The year’s worst films shared amongst them a single defining trait: more so than technical or artistic failings, they were one and all exercises in turgid and unjustified nihilism, marketing misanthropy as the new cool whilst further desensitizing their audiences to the far-reaching pains of the world.

French fries. A milkshake. A meatball. Masterpieces come in all shapes and sizes, and the feature-length adaptation of Cartoon Network's ultra-surrealist Aqua Teen Hunger Force is an act of cinematic anarchy for the ages, dispensing of audience pretensions in a matter of moments before free-falling into a flabbergasting anti-narrative that exists somewhere between dadaist upheaval and Warholian self-examination. The Simpsons has always been more loving and South Park more scathing in their respective satires, but none is so subversively and forcefully deconstructive as this insane pop culture jambalaya.

The title of Paul Thomas Anderson's fifth feature is a promise to be fulfilled, for sure, but most intense about this epic adaptation of Upton Sinclair's Oil! is his utter refusal to sympathize with Daniel Day-Lewis' brutal Daniel Plainview. Alternately (sometimes simultaneously) horrifying and bemusing, There Will Be Blood rumbles like a turgid well before its histrionic breaking point, a regressive exclamation point that calls to attention our own self-destructive obsessions with money and faith.

A sermon-like immersion on an unprecedented scale, Into Great Silence is the 2001: A Space Odyssey of documentaries, touching the infinite in its somber, restrained examination of religious life. Patience and meditation give way to enlightenment and transcendence, and so too does Philip Gröning's film reward our inquisition with invaluable wisdom on how best to live our lives.

Death is coming for us all, and all we can hope to do is to live with love and virtue before he comes knocking on our door. The Coens' meditation on fate and chance strikes chords at once universal and specific to our own time, while their cagey aesthetics - like Chigurh's restrained menace - continuously suggest a beast about to break free from its cage. Our suspense is baited not just for the lives of the characters on screen, but our own.

Zodiac is so blatantly anti-film in its construction that it could have been a documentary. David Fincher opts for the subtle underpass to his trademark stylistic flourishes and the result may be his best film to date, an absorbing look into the nature of obsession: for life, for power, for meaning, for truth. The intangible nature of each represents Zodiac's devastating "based on a true story" relevance.

Following Spider and A History of Violence, Eastern Promises continues David Cronenberg's shift from physical explorations to those more intangible. A mother without her daughter and a daughter without her mother represent the film's unspoken moral axis, while it is Cronenberg's delineating camera that most effectively gets to the bottom of his character's dichotomous identities.

Anderson will always be trounced upon by those who mindlessly equate quirk with superficiality, lest they actually deal with things on a case by case basis. Unlike the cute but simplistic Juno, Anderson uses his touches not as substance but as flourishes, moments and memories infused into compact packages that speak for more than the sum of their parts. Hotel Chevalier may be his finest hour yet, squeezing enough pain and longing into less than a quarter of an hour so as to rival his own feature-length masterpieces.

Films are our dreams and wishes, and Paprika's self-devouring chaos proves an inescapable journey down the rabbit hole of our collective yearning for meaning and truth. Satoshi Kon's latest animated masterwork escapes contrivance by allowing its characters to stand defined through their actions, explaining its heady sci-fi narrative only just enough to send us on our own way into the abyss.

No unnecessary sequel of the past ten years has been as profoundly realized as Juan Carlos Fresnadillo's survival extravaganza, exploding out of an otherworldly ether as it propels the general storyline of Danny Boyle's original film into areas more fable-esque than straight horror. The ties of blood are strongly felt as the sins of our fathers return to haunt us - often in ways unseen, but here as violent and bloody as ever.

Herzog's films have never existed in a context larger than that which they fashion for themselves, and it is in this way that Rescue Dawn's Dieter Dengler ascends to the same heights of primordial experience as Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo. At war with both man and nature, his transformation reflects not only the duties and necessities of the soldier in combat, but the malleability and endurance of the human spirit.

12:08 East of Bucharest, Ratatouille, Death Proof, Rolling Like a Stone, Exiled, Broken English, Superbad, Black Snake Moan, The Taste of Tea, Helvetica

Hostel: Part II, I Know Who Killed Me, Zzyzx, Bratz, Park, Captivity, Smokin' Aces, 300, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, Shrek the Third

Dec 28, 2007

Commando (1985): B+

It dawned on me while watching Commando, Arnold Schwarzenegger's 1985 follow-up to his massive surprise stardom in The Terminator, that the man has become far more than the sum of his parts in our culture, a admittedly apparent fact nonetheless growing increasingly more relevant with the passage of time and the man's increased involvement in our turgid political world. Most people pray that they leave their mark on this earth in some substantial way before they die, whether they donate something to science or leave behind their genetic makeup in the form of an offspring. Arnold has nothing to worry about, though; he's become a Paul Bunyan in his own time and the guy still has his hairline. Watching his performances now - especially those from his earlier feature films (to say nothing of Pumping Iron) - it's almost impossible to watch him as simply a performer. As an actor and politician in addition to inimitable cultural icon, his presence has become such that the man and the myth can't be separated. His influence bubbles up everywhere like an unseen reservoir beneath the framework of our society, his most famous character a now long-cliched association with virtually anything having to do with death en mass, and he now the ruler of one of the U.S.'s most prominent states (seriously, when California breaks off into the ocean, Arnold will declare himself high ruler and proceed to take over the world with his self-sustained army). In that vein of larger-than-life celebrity, Commando is an almost-masterpiece with its deadpan satire of Arnold's archetypal human role, the good-guy renegade who'll kill thousands of faceless villains (mostly rent-a-cops and barely-paid mercenaries) just so he can save his little girl (in other words, a perfectly caricatured encapsulation of the Reagan values on the rise at the time).

Even as one of Schwarzenegger's earliest roles, the film's approximation of action convention within a specific cultural and social context (present mostly for show and in a diluted form, but present nevertheless) is potent without effort, a straighter (and arguably greater) example than Edgar Writer and Simon Pegg's Hot Fuzz. A rapid-fire sequence of Arnold suiting up with knives, grenades and makeup that makes him look like a freshly cooked steak whips onto the screen with more macho intensity (not to mention unspoken homo-erotic undertones) than the combined entirety of 300 combined, while Arnold's goofy face - an unlikely combination of convincingly vacant emotions and chiseled muscle intimidating to the point of absurdity (the film itself opens with a ridiculous montage of Schwarzenegger's biceps and abs), here made the comical antithesis to The Terminator's ruthless and truly terrifying killing machine a la Arnold's batty eye motions and calculated, machine-like gestures (these side thoughts interrupt the flow of the sentence too much) - provides the entirety of the film's nth-degree action conventions with the perfect point of illogical comedic contrast. Played with pitch-perfect intensity and unwavering solemnity (like a Sacha Baron Coen performance, the humor is never actually acknowledged to the viewer, just as Borat wouldn't be funny if he were winking to the audience), Commando is an extraordinary representation and send-up of its chosen genre all at once, thrillingly silly in its action sequences (which never want for unreasonable and wholly impossible feats of strength; seriously, Arnold stops just short of throwing tanks at the enemy) and obviously subtle in its clumsy emotional touches. Most heroic protagonists (James Bond or John McClaine) would first attempt to break into a building through a window or an unlocked door so as to go unnoticed; Arnold, never one for fucking around, rips off the side of a wall for easy and immediate access, and similarly tears a seat out of a vehicle so his bulky form can ride relatively out of sight. That the film may have stumbled onto this self-degrading effectiveness wholly by accident - rendering it not so much a brilliant satire but a piece of lazy hackwork brilliantly oblivious to itself - could theoretically make it an even more legitimate success. Actuality over intention reigns, nevertheless, and Commando - as far as representing a rather slim sub-genre of 80's exploitation flicks - represents one of the finest. That the film so precisely captured Arnold's iconography so early in his career speaks to its inbred understanding of cinematic celebrity culture, and, in doing so, seems to have guided everything that has followed since. You're welcome, California!

Dec 7, 2007

The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007): A-

As tremendous an act in empathy as anything Werner Herzog has ever committed to the documentary screen, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters elevates a particular niche interest - that of the hardcore videogamer - to exquisitely existential heights, carving out the determination and passion exhibited by those who are drawn to the medium of classic arcade games for purposes beyond that of mere pastime enjoyment. The film's incredibly watchable aesthetic is due in part to the subject matter, as seemingly light and breezy a topic as one could imagine in the midst of so many Inconvenient Truths and No End in Sights dominating the circuit, but more important here is the manner in which the filmmakers explore these gamers' passions as an extension of their self-defined roles in a world full of judgment and confrontation, acting not only as an incredibly humane exercise in cinema but also as an antidote to the ridicule-laden representations such persons have generally suffered on the silver screen. A single competition forms the dramatic crux of the narrative, that between the official named Gamer of the Century Billy Mitchell, world record holder for the original Donkey Kong and fierce perfectionist wary of anyone encroaching on his high scores, and the reserved, somewhat insecure Steve Wiebe, a family man from Washington determined to prove himself the best at something after suffering so many undeserving letdowns over the course of his life. The look that follows at the gamer culture may as well be an offshoot of the Corleone family: questionable high score records, allegiances to particular gamers (and stances against others), and paranoid territoriality all play a role in the unfolding events that go beyond mere scores and enter the realm of personal integrity for all those involved. Though effectively streamlined for maximized entertainment, Seth Gordon's condensation of these months-long events never takes the route of simplicity, quickly summarizing videogame history and ideology (though I suspect many of the films viewers, myself included, will already be familiar enough with the territory as to be able to enjoy the recap purely for its aesthetic virtues) before dovetailing into the techno-infused insanity of it all. Despite the fact that the central Steve vs. Billy conflict is so well rendered as to make the minor subplots feel like excess fat by comparison, The King of Kong remains a breathless act of investigation, as admirable for its craft as for its objective consideration, and one of the finest documentaries in recent years.

Atonement (2007): C

The Oscars have long been losing their worth, and it might appear that the final stake was driven in the heart of it all when the indulgent awards extravaganza stopped being a means and started being an end. Films like Atonement are made (largely, if not entirely) to win awards, carefully pampered and stylized so as to appear ravishing at a surface glance, their carefully manicured posturing frequently lauded practically sight unseen thanks to reinforced obsession with superficial hoopla (the razzle dazzle the two-faced Chicago both criticized and drank deeply from). Far be it from me to lambast convention, an oft-used and wholly inadequate critical take down that mistakes commonality for mediocrity (suggesting that normality by definition has nothing to offer). Atonement, however, exists outside both artistic convention and mediocrity, more closely resembling a fashion show in the guise of a literary classic than an actual living, breathing film. Such a pity that a story so compelling in the details and a production so effortlessly lavished with technical mastery is put to such dullard ends, a cinematic fellatio for anyone easily impressed by set and costume design. In the years preceding World War II, the rich and naïve 13-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) mistakes a series of events involving her elder sister Cecilia (Kiera Knightley) and Robbie (James McAvoy) for sexual malice on the part of the latter. (Spoilers ahead.) When Briony discovers her older cousin being raped on the property surrounding their mansion, she insists the attacker to be Robbie (despite having not seen his face), believing him to be a dangerous sexual predator after inadvertently reading one of his more strongly worded love letters to Cecilia. The schism she thrusts between he and her sisters romance carries into the wartime era, during which time her growing maturity allows her to realize not only the extent of her actions, but Robbie's innocent from the very start of the matter. Say what you will, director Joe Wright is obviously respectful of his material, and it is in this aghast formalism that he misguidedly reduces the richness of Ian McEwan's literary work to its lowest common denominator. His previously overrated Pride & Prejudice sacrificed complexity for narrative compactness, and so too does Atonement seek to streamline all aspects of its narrative (be they character relationships or the presentation of the social climate of the time) in the name of palatability. Even a prolonged single take navigating the war-torn beaches of France is stripped of all feeling, despite being an absolute triumph of technical direction. That's Atonement in a nutshell: compulsively watchable but scared at the thought of alienating audiences with emotions of the truly ugly kind.

Juno (2007): B+

Juno gives me hope for emo culture. The film oozes earnestness out its ears, a quality that is likely to win or repulse different viewers right off the bat given its loose wielding of quirky teenage culture, snarky attitudes that front deeper emotions whose possessors are often unable to articulate them beyond a wall of angst. The film has already been compared to last years non-indie Little Miss Sunshine, although their similarities barely register beyond superficial classifications of the cinema. Concerning Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page), a 16-year-old girl who finds herself an expecting mother after some sexual discovery with her long-time best friend Paulie (Michael Cera), the film is like one prolonged and totally uninterrupted mental doodle, at first scattershot and clumsy but ultimately finding an appropriate groove for its storyline. Like this years similarly plotted (and more blatantly titled) Knocked Up, Juno uses its preggo-centric storyline as a jumping point for more extensive character studies, and it is in this manner that the titular character becomes most interesting. Far from a typical 16-year-old, Juno has seemingly absorbed the entirety of three decades worth of pop culture into her vernacular (at one point arguing over Dario Argento's status as the master of gore): rambunctious, cool, smug and totally unprepared for reality all at the same time. The character first smacks of screenwriting laziness, as if her surreal complexity were but a shorthand to avoid dealing with the usual ramifications of an unplanned teenage pregnancy, but through both the conviction of Ellen Page's performance and the ultimate steadiness of director Jason Reitma's sleight of hand, the film sells the character as a penultimate outcast with far more to learn about herself than she realizes. Occasionally spilled over into manipulative treacle, the film's wit is not unlike the defensive personality of its lead protagonist: a cover easily pulled aside to reveal genuine tenderness inside wanting for acceptance.

Dec 2, 2007

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters (2007): A+

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film For Theaters may be the most scathing deconstruction of Hollywood (and the culture at large) this side of Robert Altman's The Player. The suburbs of New Jersey echo the end of the universe as envisioned by Douglas Adams in this feature length version of the series popularized by Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, a place at once everywhere and nowhere, where anything can happen at any given time, no questions asked. Essentially a Molotov cocktail lobbed at both conventionalized artistry and anyone who's ever taken their cinematic consumption (or life) for granted, the film works primarily through its own constantly reinforced audience deception, perpetually distracting the viewer with the utterly bizarre nature of it all as it pulls one rug out from under their feet after another. Naysayers cry "stoner!" as if a good toke were the death toll of all intelligence or worth, an almost willful misreading that not only denies the profundities of anti-logic but also the near-impossibility of articulating such thoughts in accessible terms during the waking life. Though not all fans made the transition from ten-minute episodes to ninety-minute extravaganza, it's telling how the irreverence of the film has managed to ruffle feathers amidst those who don't get it (similarly telling is the ease with which many fall back on the 2007 Boston bomb scare as an easy point of derision, a critical cop-out that reveals less about the film than the person addressing it). The film acts as its own litmus test, defying all conventional readings and thus confirming its own significance in the process. To condemn the film for its incoherence is like blaming water for being wet.

Few features of the new millennium have been as viciously and consistently funny, given both the objective nature of comedy and the Airplane!-like rapidity with which the film fires off its endless stream of sight gags and insanity-infused dialogue. Pop culture personality has been condensed into the form of several anthropomorphic fast food items and other assorted personalities (among them, a Plutonian alien sporting a faux German accent and digitized, stoner residents of the Moon) whose collective misadventures are at once about everything and completely pointless, as if every conceivable cliché from Hollywood's junk drawer were assembling into as coherent a form as possible and given a story to match, here revealing the many absurdities of life we invest ourselves in from moment to moment, generally without thought or question.

At its simplest, the film concerns the efforts of our heroes - a milkshake named Master Shake (Dana Snyder), meatball Meatwad (Dave Willis), and French fry packet Frylock (Carey Means) - to save the world from the rampage of a deadly exercise machine (but one of the many mashed-together plot lines), with a talking watermelon, mad scientists, time travel, roller coasters, Space Ghost and Neal Peart of Rush all figuring prominently in the mix. Not a minute goes by that some nugget of our collective consciousness isn't put on the chopping block, although Aqua Teen is a far cry from the ironic cynicism of Seinfeld in its dealing with the minutiae of daily life. Taking nothing for granted, the film explores the underbelly of our modern world as one would the remnants of a building destroyed by a tornado, its unrestrained jambalaya of pop culture parts bordering on Warholian sans the passive voyeurism. The ultra-surrealist tones all but defy serious readings, and it is in the vacuum of expectation or form that the film's satirical bite becomes most potent; its rejection of typical claims to importance is so encompassing that it enters into the realm of the profound. The opening musical number - possibly the single funniest piece of cinema since The Producer's "Springtime For Hitler" - isn't just a brilliant re-imagining of "Let's All Go to the Lobby," but a brutal "fuck you" to all who pride themselves better than the movies or their fellow audience members, leveling the barrier between artist and audience and expressing in no uncertain terms virtually everything that need be said in a fierce act of movie film revolution. "Do not explain the plot, if you don't understand, you should not be here." Amen.