Thursday, December 28, 2006

Worst Films of 2006

To me, a list of the Worst Films of a given year doesn't necessarily have to contain the 10 or 20 least technically proficient productions. This would imply that the reviewer has seen literally every film that came out the previous year, and is then going through and picking out the most amateurish or sloppy in some kind of objective, calculated manner. Of course, no one does that, because it is impossible and pointless.

I see this list as my attempt at pushback. These are films that I disliked for some specific reason, ones that I have continued to hold in contempt for several months, in most cases. I can't be any more exact because I make an effort to avoid many of the worst films in any given year.

For example, here are some 2006 releases that may very well be among the year's least praiseworthy or significant, but I wouldn't know because they didn't rate 2 hours of my time:

The Nativity Story - Hey, I already know this story! And it doesn't strike me as particularly cinematic. Unless they threw in a couple of camel chases or give the baby Jesus a love interest. (She could be played by Dakota Fanning's creepy clone younger sister!)

Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector - I've spoken to this title's breakdown in logic before. (Is he a cable guy or a health inspector? Doesn't this just highlight the inanity of permanently identifying someone according to his or her profession?) I'm fairly certain this is the most intruiging subject raised by the film.

Grilled - Comic dynamos Kevin James and Ray Romano take a break from boring you with their lame, generic sitcoms to bore you with a lame, generic direct-to-DVD comedy about desperate meat salesmen! It's Glengarry Glen Ross meets...well, something really really stupid about meat.

The Last Kiss - Zach Braff and Paul Haggis join forces to ruin my life adapt an Italian comedy about love and relationships! There's sure to be plenty of frowning and staring off into the middle distance to the sound of this year's trendiest female pseudo-bohemian singer-songwriter!
The Shaggy Dog - Oh, look, that non-charismatic former cokehead turned into a dog. Now he is chasing a cat around. How droll...

Barnyard - Steve Oedekerk, the idiot man-child behind those retarded Thumb shorts and Kung Pow: Enter the Fist, helms 2006's 500,000,022nd computer-animated animal comedy. For just a hint at how stupid this movie must be, one need only consider that, in the commercials, obviously female bovines speak with male voices. Despite the presence of udders! Haven't been to many farms, eh, Steve?

Ron White: You Can't Fix Stupid - Apparently.

The Pet - Actual IMDB description: "A young woman in dire financial straights accepts an offer to be a wealthy aristocrat's human 'pet' for six months. Then ruthless modern 'pet-nappers' kidnap the woman to sell her on the GSM (Global Slave Market)." I guess Borat, buoyed by the massive commercial success of his American film debut, finally sold that pitch he'd been working on.

Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny - Could Tenacious D be any more over? These guys make Lynard Skynard seem poised for a reunion. Seriously, this movie is, at best, 5 years too late. (The D's first and only album arrived in 2001.) I used to really like KG and JB's act, ages ago, but I found even the commercials for this tie-in squirm-inducing. The whole joke was that they were two overweight nobodies pretending to be rock gods. But now that Jack Black is massively famous and popular, and has been repeatding the same silly joke for over a decade, it's the complete 180 opposite of funny. It's like the cinematic equivalent of peppering your everyday conversation with Austin Powers quotes.

The Celestine Prophecy - Adaptation about James Redfield's best-selling novel about a man wandering around Peru looking for the secret of life, which turns out to be "Believe in Yourself." Thanks, Jimmy! This might be worth watching only if the Maya from Apocalypto swooped in at the end and sacrificed this merry wanderer to their gods.

Benchwarmers - Nerdy underdogs play baseball in what has got to be the most clever, elaborate high-concept comedy since Joe Pesci and Danny Glover's quintessential Gone Fishin'. Jon Heder has managed to squander all of his built-up Napoleon Dynamite goodwill with astounding speed. After this and School for Scoundrels, can the Surreal Life house be far behind?

The Covenant - An unholy hybrid of The Lost Boys and The Craft starring a bunch of half-naked twinks on loan from the Abercrombie and Fitch catalog and masterminded by the Patron Saint of Loud, Pointless Dumbassery: Mr. Renny Harlin. I'd rather watch my own leg gnawed off by a pack of angry meerkats than this film.

The Peaceful Warrior - Nick Nolte plays a spiritual guru who...actually, do I need to keep summarizing?

Road House 2: Last Call - A sequel! To Road House! Written by and starring Jonathan Schaech! Guys, seriously...When Patrick Swayze is passing on your feature's time to retool. Also, I heard an ugly rumor that no one gets his or her trachea pulled out in this entry, which renders it unwatchable.

Tristan + Isolde - I hate movies that replace the word "and" with a plus sign in the title. I mean, use an ampersand if you must get fancy, but this movie is not about the sum of Tristan and Isolde. Perhaps if the movie was about their offspring, this would be technically correct. But it isn't. It's about the two of them, together, as separate entities. So that shit's not even correct. A possible correction might be (Tristan) + (Isolde) = Tristan and Isolde. But my algebra's pretty rusty. Also, this starred James Franco, who bugs me, what with his constant shitty pouty-faced acting.

Let's Go to Prison - Ha ha! Those guys went to jail and got buttfucked! Ha ha! Oh, man, that is soooooo funny. Because it's true! Men are genuinely sent to prison and then subjected to repeated, painful anal rape in this country, while we all either ignore it or laugh about it! Because nothing says "goofy comedic shenanigans" quite like reality-inspired sketches depicting violent sexual assault.

You, Me and Dupree - Owen Wilson needs to give it a serious rest for a while. I'm so sick of him, the dislike is starting to spread to other actors who are related to him or resemble him in some way. I can't even really tolerate his brother Luke, Wes Anderson movies or Steve Zahn any more. The other day, I caught myself cursing notable WWI poet Wilfred Owen under my breath. The Butterscotch Stallion made three, count 'em, three duds this year: this, Cars and Night at the Museum. Kevin Federline had more 2006 hits. It has gotten so bad, he's even calling Tom Cruise for career advice. "So, you're saying I should jump around on Oprah's couch, offer niacin to New York firefighters, insult Brooke Shields and then promise to buy Katie Holmes a comb and a cat? Got it!" Seriously, I'll sit through a stupid mainstream comedy, but I could never ever watch this movie. Even the guy's vacant expression on the box fills me with the urge to destroy.

Wordplay - With the success of Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom, prepare for the Invasion of the Pointless, Dull, Up-Its-Own-Asshole Documentary Film. A fucking feature-length examination of crossword puzzles? Oh, look, Jon Stewart enjoys a nice crossword! How enlightening! Guess what? Not every silly diversion enjoyed by the privileged is fascinating enough for its own documentary.

A Good Year - Russell Crowe faces that universal human dilemma: should I keep my high-paying job and luxurious apartment in the city or give it all up to live in my luxurious vineyard in the country? As a follow-up, Ridley Scott's going to make a searing drama about a man who must choose between two elite local country clubs before watching supermodels fight over which one gets to blow him.

Little Man - The second entry in the Wayans' Brothers presumed Bad Disguise Trilogy, following International Art House Sensation White Chicks. This time, they appear to have artificially placed Marlon's head on the body of a midget, who then disguises himself as a little boy. That seems like kind of a long way around to get a cheap laugh from some boob and doody jokes to me, but perhaps that's why I'm not getting any big pitch meetings. The trilogy winds up next year with Dirty Job, in which Marlon plays an FBI agent who, through the magic of special effects, goes undercover as a piece of doody to stop a potential janitor's strike at this year's Boob Convention.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning - See how Leatherface began! I'm just going to go out on a limb here and guess that he worked in a slaughterhouse and then started brutally killing people? With the help of his family? Have I got it all? I mean, geez, thank goodness they finally made this film and solved all thsoe mysterious riddles that were already explained in the first movie, back in the '70s.

Okay, so I didn't see any of those films. They all may be as bad or worse than the 21 films I have seen and selected as The Year's Worst. (Particularly that crap with Larry the Cable Guy.)

The point is, none of this is definitive and it's based on nothing more than my specific tastes and perspective. These are the films that irritated me the most, not necessarily the ones that were the most poorly-made.

21. The Sentinel

This year's answer to Murder at 1600. Director Clark Johnson gets points for casting TV's Sledgehammer, David Rasche, as the President, but those are about the only points he scores for the duration of this utter waste of celluloid's seemingly-endless 100 minutes. It's not just because all the actors save Michael Douglas regularly appear on hit shows that this thriller about dueling Secret Service agents feels like a made-for-TV movie...It's Johnson's flat, anonymous direction, hampered further by an immediately-apparent lack of funds.

20. Beowulf and Grendel

A revisionist update on a staple of English 10A, Beowulf and Grendel turns the famed Viking legend into an Old English version of Grand Canyon. Why can't these humans and these Neanderthals just get along? This is the Medieval version of white liberal guilt.

In addition to the goofy modern flourishes, like the proto-feminist witch played by Sarah Polley with all the subtlety of Valerie Solanas' "SCUM Manifesto," screenwriter Andrew Rai Berzins fatal error of contemporizing much of the language. If you've ever wanted to see Stellan Skarsgaard in a fake beard skulking around a cabin cursing out "these fucking trolls," we may have found the movie for you. Otherwise, avoid as you would a beast's vindictive, possibly mythological, mother.

19. Brick

Proof that a clever premise doesn't equal a clever movie, Brick spends far too much time eulogizing a dead genre and not enough time telling a compelling story or developing an original idea. Yes, we all love noir movies. Yes, it's somewhat amusing to dress up Lukas Haas as an old-timey gangster with a cape and a cane and to give him antiquated "criminal" dialogue. But did anyone really think this one-note gimmick was worth developing into a feature? Wouldn't it be possible to tell the same joke, get the same laugh, and then go about constructing a mystery that's interesting on its own merits?

18. Scoop

Atrocious. Woody insults his fans with this movie by churning out such apathetic, transparent piffle. Mass audiences turned their backs on him long ago. He's no longer courting the mainstream. No, when he releases something that so obviously isn't working, a relatively simple comic premise that can't even hold itself together logically, he might as well open and close the movie by facing the camera straight-on and flipping the viewer the bird. Several Woody fans have defended this film to me recently, but to do so requires such rhetorical contortions and diminished expectations, they wind up sounding more dismissive of Woody and his remaining talents than me.

17. An American Haunting

Based around a so-called "true story" from 19th Century New England, An American Haunting features a highly dubious variation on the traditional ghost story. One might almost call it "soul-shatteringly stupid." The combined talents of Donald Sutherland, Sissy Spacek and the esteemed director of Dungeons and Dragons, Courtney Solomon, can't save this hackneyed dreck.

16. Stay Alive

Bring It On launched this obnoxious trend of teen movies with imperative titles. Stay Alive. Step Up. Take the Lead. Stick It. Strap It On 4: Fem Doms.

Hey, you know what? Fuck you. I paid my $10, let's see you idiots step up. I'm going to remain comfortably seated.

Anyway, this braindead teen slasher opens with the question, "What if, when you died in a certain video game, it killed you in reality?" The obvious answer, that you'd stop playing that game, presents an immediate obstacle to ongoing horror movie mayhemn. So the filmmakers devise a ridiculous cheat that invalidates the whole movie: if you stop playing the game, it starts playing for you! Then why not just abandon the stupid "game" concept altogether and just make a movie about a disembodied spirit that thirsts for teen blood?

Also, if star Frankie Muniz wants to be taken seriously as an actor, he should probably go with Frank Muniz. It's a bit tougher, innit? Like Rick Schroeder or Bow Wow.

15. Lucky Number Slevin

"Hey, I know, let's get together a whole bunch of stars and make a crime movie!"

"Okay. What should it be about?"

"Who cares! We're going to get some stars to be in it! Oh, and they should all spout self-aware, pop-culture inspired dialogue all the time, like in a Tarantino movie!"

"Isn't that a bit familiar at this point?"

"The kids will love it! And the best part is, it doesn't even have to make sense, or have any kind of personality of its own! And even the name doesn't have to make sense! Because it will have big stars!"

"Who's going to want to watch this if it doesn't have a personality and it doesn't make sense, and the name is something odd and hard to remember and nonsensical?"

"You know...assholes!"

"Hey, there's millions of them! We'll be rich! You're a genius!"

"I'll go ahead and get Ben Kingsley on the horn. You know he's in."

14. Art School Confidential

Hey, have you ever wondered about all the outrageous, funny stuff that really goes down at art school?

Yeah, me neither. And even if I did, I still wouldn't have liked Terry Zwigoff's and Daniel Clowes' execrable ode to hipster cynicism and Randian egomania. No comedy this pleased with itself could ever have a chance of being funny. Watching it is like helping Donald Trump prepare an acceptance speech just in case he's ever awarded the coveted Nobel Loud, Ostentatious Prick Prize. (Awards banquet hosted by Bill Maher!)

13. Night Watch (Nochnoy Dozor)

Back in 2004, this fantasy-horror epic broke all Russian box office records, becoming the country's most popular film of all time. (Over there, it has already spawned 2 sequels, but only hit American shores in 2006.) The Russian people, post-Eisenstein, and I clearly don't enjoy the same kind of movies. I don't, as a rule, like to watch films that cut between dark, ugly, computer-enhanced images with lightening speed, rendering all on-screen action and characters indiscernable and conferring onto the viewer a massive headache. But, hey, that's me.

There are virtuoso moments here, but they are always simply that - individual moments designed to show off. The camera follows a bolt as it flies off a passing jet and hurtles towards an apartment building at fantastic speeds. It looks impressive (if a bit artificial and "animated"), but belongs in a promo reel or a music video, cause it just breaks the reality and kills the momentum of a film.

12. Date Movie

Date Movie may be the laziest comedy ever made. Plenty of comedies come out that just aren't funny, and some are even what I would consider "creatively bankrupt." That is, they begin with nothing - not even one single genuinely funny set-up or idea. But even in an unfunny, failed comedy (like, say, Scoop), you can usually detect some effort. In fact, that's often what kills a comedy, when you spend enough time not laughing to notice the director, writer and actors trying really hard to make you laugh. This is what typically ruins Kevin Smith movies for me. He's a funny guy, but I always notice him and his actors trying to be funny, which is strange for a dude who's so relaxed and casual in front of an audience on a stage.

But the entire parody genre has become a barren wasteland, a reliable risk-free way to bank on an easy $30 million or so. The films making up this bastard Scary Movie franchise (Epic Movie lands with a thud in 2007) are soulless, empty "products," made without anything approaching craft or effort. Director Aaron Seltzer and writer Jason Friedberg don't even bother mock a wide variety of movies. They pretty much stick to a scene-by-scene recreation of Meet the Parents (already a comedy! and only a mediocre one at that!) with passing references to other recent films. Please note, I said "references," not jokes. For example, Tony Cox plays a character named Hitch based on Will Smith from Hitch. They didn't even bother to make up a fake name to goof on the name Hitch! Even MAD Magazine does that!

11./10. The Wicker Man/The Omen

Neil LaBute's puzzling remake of The Wicker Man indicates a lack of basic understanding about what made the original work. He's taken out all the entertaining stuff (the sex, the camp, Christopher Lee, the satire of sanctimonious religiocity) and replaced it with slack horror movie cliches.

Conversely, John Moore's remake of The Omen hews far too tightly to the Richard Donner original. Why redo a movie at all if you're going to recreate it scene-for-scene, making a few vestigial or ill-conceived changes? Though it's a solid horror film, Donner's original is by no means a flawless, definitive version of this sort of story. Why not try keeping the essential elements but reimagining the actual machanizations of the plot, to keep it fresh for the millions of people who have seen the first film?

I lump these films together both because they are both horror remakes and because they use the same tired, egregiously thin device: supernatural dream sequences that end with a jolt. Not only that, but they botch these scenes in exactly the same way: by letting you know too early that it's all a dream, thus killing any potential suspense that might have built up.

9. Ultraviolet

I don't think it's hyperbole to call this the worst-looking American film of the year. The production company went bankrupt before the effects were completed, explaining the film's awful effects and Playstation cut-scene ambience. But with the guilty party responsible for Equilibrium, Kurt Wimmer, at the helm, this comic-book-style update of a British mini-series never really had a chance.

All the Wimmer trademarks from Equilibrium are here - the theatrical, poorly-choreographed fight scenes; the cheesy dialogue; the wooden performances; the '70s camp vision of the future. New to this entry are Milla Jovovich, a long way from her breakthrough in the similarly annoying but far more visionary The Fifth Element, and child actor Cameron Bright, who worked on more bad films this year than Deluxe.

8. Friends With Money

Writer/director Nicole Holofcener and her four leading actresses are all far, far better than this. A navel-gazing, pseudo-comedy about a woman searching for a rich man so she can compete with her bitchy friends, Friends With Money is every bit as offensive as I have just made it sound.

It's not that Holofcener starts with an insulting central conceit or anything. Her movie explores how people can easily detect the problems of others, but lack the ability to self-diagnose until it's too late. Okay, fine. But on her way to an overly pat, tidy conclusion, she fails to create any likable, realistic characters. Significant talents like Frances McDormand and Catherine Keener are saddled with paper-thin, predictable types, while Jennifer Aniston essentially recreates her character from "Friends," only without the great apartment. And the outlook here is just so superficial. Money equals happiness. Poverty is bad when it happens to attractive white women. People who smoke marijuana are loser burnouts. Dating an overweight man is pathetic, unless he's rich, in which case it's acceptable as a last resort. It gives the whole film the feel of late-era James L. Brooks - sappy, elitist, condescending bullshit.

7. Superman Returns

Bryan Singer's turgid, joyless Superman Returns feels more than anything else like a failure of nerve. Rather than risk pissing off long-time fans or young toy purchasers, he essentially reshoots the Donner/Lester classics with modern effects and calls it a day. Okay, that's not entirely fair - he replaces Gene Hackman with a mincing Kevin Spacey, who apparently thought he was starring in a touring production of "Superman on Ice," and he gives the Man of Steel an adorable moppet to take care of. Because we all know how well that worked in Dick Tracy and The Mummy Returns. Singer pulls off a few solid action sequences, and the bright crisp digital photography looks great, but his seriousness of purpose clashes with the inherent goofiness of Superman's world. This overlong, dry retelling of the essential superhero myth puts the "blow" in overblown.

6. The Pink Panther

A remake of a classic comedy is always going to be difficult to pull off, but a remake of one of the most famous comedies in history, boasting the most iconic role from one of the screen's most beloved comedians, might not even be possible. Has any actor ever been more immediately identifiable with a character than Peter Sellers and Inspector Clouseau? Even with a brilliant script and a fresh take on the story, it would be impossible for Steve Martin (particularly at his age) to match Sellers' perfect timing and prodigal talent for physical comedy. Unfortunately, Pink Panther has neither of those things, floundering laugh-free, through a series of predictable set pieces that lack any of the spark or demented genius of Pink Panther Strikes Again or A Shot in the Dark. This one's right down there with that travesty starring Roberto Benigni, which at least had the grace and humility to make its lead Clouseau's son rather than recasting the part.

5. The Da Vinci Code

Ron Howard makes my Worst Films list pretty much every year he makes a film. And with good cause. The guy represents all that is evil about soulless corporate filmmaking. His movies don't simply lack style and originality, they studiously avoid them. Mediocrity is not a bug in Howard's system, it's a feature. He's aiming for maximum gross each and every time, and you don't move units at Wal-Mart by pushing the envelope or subverting expectations. This is why a controversial religious-themed conspiracy thriller represents the worst of all possible subjects for Opie to tackle.

Howard and Ridley Scott should have swapped 2006 projects - Rid could bring his taste for the macabre and his strong visual sense to a twisty Catholic chase movie and Ron could bring his glossy, empty-headed bluster to bucolic shots of Russell Crowe sipping white wine. In fact, it doesn't have to be Ridley Scott. Seann William Scott could have directed a more interesting version of Da Vinci Code than this. I mean, the book is stupid in the first place, but it's at least a quick and painless read. Watching the film's such an ordeal, anyone who gets through it should be nominated for sainthood. I never thought I could hate a movie about an albino assassin who whips himself for absolution, but here we are...

4. Thank You For Smoking

Writer/director Jason Reitman doesn't know much, but he knows he's smarter than you. Not just you, but everybody. Jason's "satire" of the Tobacco Industry uses ridicule as a dodge. He has no perspective on tobacco one way or the other. It's bad for people, sure, and the companies that produce it will use any means necessary to ensure that they get to keep selling it for profit. Other than that, he's got nothin'. (And as the film is based on a novel by Christopher Buckley, one can only assume that he's also got nothin'.)

So in place of insight, the film's filled with wall-to-wall snark and bile. Reitman presents lame caricatures and strawmen - the overeager girl reporter, the ludicrous New Age movie executive, the shamelessly self-promoting politician - and then takes great delight in tearing them down, as if mocking clueless Senators and shallow film industry types requires any kind of skill. Throw in a couple of gooey, faux-heartwarming scenes on loan from Jerry Maguire and you've got a recipie for the year's most smug, unlikable indie hit.

Perhaps festival crowds felt flattered by the film - they were in on the joke, laughing along with Reitman at all the stupid Americans who aren't sophisticated insiders, already cynical about everything they see, hear and read. I found the film's callousness and air of elitist superiority decidedly off-putting.

3. Nacho Libre

When I first saw this reprehensible Jack Black "comedy" in June, I was certain it would be the worst film released in 2006. The fact that not one but TWO films would top it indicates just how woeful a year this really was for American film. Anyway, in the comments to my original review, a lot of people have objected to my characterizing the film as "racist."

So I'd just like to reiterate that characterization and explain myself further. Nacho Libre is racist because it presents a singular, and inaccurate, view of Mexicans and their nation as subordinate and inferior to the whites who made the film. Mexico is an extremely diverse country, both culturally and geographically. But in this film, it is uniformly brown, ugly and despoiled, and filled with stupid, ugly peasants. (Pretty much everything about Mexicans, from their cuisine to their music to their physical appearance, is mocked during the course of the film.)

Napoleon Dynamite director Jared Hess either finds the mere appearance of Mexicans to be inherently funny or simply could not derive any other kind of humor from his thin, sophomoric premise. The idea of Jack Black playing a Mexican wrestler is funny, but nothing in the movie truly capitalizes on this idea, or even approaches it on anything but the most superficial level. Black's character is theoretically funny because he looks ridiculous in a wrestler's outfit. No further attempt is made to endear him to the audience or invest him with any kind of inner life or soul, basic requirements for any comic protagonist.

Instead, Hess mines for the inherent comedy in overstated Mexican accents, obese children and old people with missing teeth. I liked his low-budget debut, but I'm wondering whether or not Hess will even get a chance to direct another movie after this Braffsterpiece.*

2. United 93

My case against United 93 is long and involved. I suggest you go here to the original review to get a clear idea of why I hate this movie the way that I do. It's possible that my least favorite (or second-least-favorite) movie of the year will win the Best Picture Oscar two years running. (Last year's winner, Crash, being my Worst Film choice for 2005.)

Watching Paul Greengrass' film is like reading Osama bin Laden's resume. Like the Worst's Most Fearsome Terrorist Mastermind, Greengrass is using 9/11 to demonstrate his own technical prowess. (George W. Bush prefers to use 9/11 to demonstrate his expansive penis size.) Accordingly, he never allows the event itself to intrude on his recreation. This is a film about nothing except Paul Greengrass' ability to accurately depict. It is a black hole of history - real events disappear within Greengrass' fictional patchwork, becoming nothing more than disconnected images, scenery for him to shoot.

Just ask yourself - why recreate 9/11 on film? United 93 doesn't tell a story about that day, something inspirational, tragic or otherwise. This is not World Trade Center, a well-meaning if occasionally misguided depiction of the heroism exhibited by rescue teams on 9/11. Instead, it's an exercize, as disturbingly cold and inhuman as any film I have ever seen, like a film directed by a moviemaking robot that has been given instructions to "put 9/11 to film." The argument that it's exceedingly well-made does nothing to convince me of its value, any more than a really expertly-crafted electric chair or a custom-engineered new strain of SuperAIDS.

1. Lady in the Water**

Earlier this year, before Lady in the Water hit theaters, I won a contest by submitting the most creative guess as to how the film would end. Here was my guess:

Okay, so obviously, we know that M. Night will eventually get around to revealing that "it's all a story," possibly being read by Cleveland to a little girl or some crap like that. I'm thinking he might take the notion one step further this time, sensing that everyone's catching on to his little tricks. Soooo....

We pull back to reveal Cleveland reading the entire film's plot, as a bedtime story, to a little girl.


We pull back to reveal Peter Falk from "The Princess Bride," reading the film's plot as a bedtime story to Cleveland


We pull back to reveal M. Night Shyamalan reading the film's plot as a bedtime story to Peter Falk


We pull back to reveal God reading the film's plot to M. Night Shyamalan

Because, let's face it...The guy's divinely inspired.

I was joking, but it turns out that I was right! Not about the whole movie being a bedtime story (although that's not too far off), but about Night believing himself to be divinely inspired. That's pretty much the whole point of the movie - the writer Night plays himself is told by an angelic figure that his work will inspire generations and change the world for the better.

I'm not sure if any other filmmaker in history has made a movie that's this egomaniacal. (Though the more I think about INLAND EMPIRE, the more I think the entire final scene is set inside David Lynch's brain.) The only other way to even come close would be to use special effects to 69 yourself on screen. I think the image of a director and his clone blowing one another might edge out Lady in the Water in terms of self-love, but it's hard to say without actually seeing something like that.

On top of that, it's just boring and poorly put together. Once upon a time, Shyamalan demonstrated a precocious, natural ability to frame shots, build suspense and write characters. He fumbles around this half-formed narrative like a rank amateur, frequently inserting long expositional monologues where they don't belong and repeating himself endlessly. And the special effects on the film's villainous wolves come in just after Ultraviolet as the spottiest of the year. They look like cartoons chasing after Paul Giamatti, not real wolves made of branches. (Yeah, they're supposed to look like wolves made of branches...I didn't pick it as the Year's Worst Film on a whim...)

Night's film is the perfect metaphor for 2006. So enraptured of itself, so invested in its own power and ability, the movie forgets to actually entertain, to do anything that fantastical bedtime stories stories are supposed to do. Like our nation's foreign and environmental policy, it's centered around an essential delusion: George Bush and Night know what they are doing and have it all under control. (Night and Bush also share the same phony, dewy-eyed, mock spirituality, when they clearly know nothing of the humility and reverence for all human life preached by religion.)

The thing is, Bush hasn't a clue about how to do anything but cover his own ass, and Night has lost whatever ability he previously had to make films or judge his own work. I've heard better bedtime stories from Glenn Danzig.

*Braffsterpiece: (1) Any film that, in some way, resembles the work of writer/director Zach Braff, (2) a horrible film, (3) a nickname for Braff's debut film, Garden State.

**A special award goes to Guy Ritchie's Revolver, the worst movie I actually saw in 2006. Unfortunately, it is so bad, no one will release it in America, making it ineligible for an actual spot on the list.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

You Don't Have Gerald Ford to Kick Around Any More

I usually headline the eulogizing posts with "RIP..." and then the name of the person who died, but I'm not doing that for Ex-President Ford. Not because I bear him any specific ill-will. I don't think he was a great, or even particularly good, President, but he also doesn't seem to be as massive an asshole as the other men who have held the position of late. It's because, maybe he should do a little thinking rather than going immediately into the rest phase.

I think, amidst the usual gamut of mistakes, Ford made one unforgivable error: pardoning Nixon. Not just because the guy deserved to be punished for his crimes against, well, everyone. And not just because it sets a horrible precedent to let a power-mad delusional psychopath get off scott free to open his own library in Yorba Linda.

Because the guys who worked under Nixon, many of whom rose to prominance during Ford's Administration, are our current crop of power-mad delusional psychopaths. We're talking about When Dick Met Don here, people. This is the beginning of the Iraq Wars prequel trilogy. (I'd make up a joke title, but you really can't do any better than Episode I: The Phantom Menace.) If someone had done something about then then, we wouldn't be worrying about them invading places now.

This is obvious.

Any more, it's just assumed that powerful guys will get away with shit. Henry Kissinger can't even land in the airport of most countries, for fear of being arrested for war crimes on sight. Here in America, he pops into CNN's Situation Room with impunity to play elder statesmen and give his expert opinion on world affairs! That's like having Tara Reid on to give her 5 favorite beauty tips! Why would you do that?

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Children of Men

I've always said that it would be nice to die in a cataclysmic disaster that takes the life of all humanity. The worst part about dying, to me, has always been the idea that exciting, interesting things will happen the day after you're gone. A new movie will open that next Friday, and it will be the first of many you'll never have a chance to see. But if you die in the Apocalypse, well, that's it. No more anything. So, you know, you don't miss out on much.

Of course, it's highly unlikely there will ever be an Apocalypse like that, one that comes and goes quickly and painlessly. If humanity's going to die out (and it's bound to happen eventually), it will probably be a brutally slow procession of horrors - famine, war, rioting, anarchy, disease, you name it - that we'd all have to suffer through together. The hell with that.

The crumbling civilization of 2027 presented in Alfonso Cuaron's stark, harrowing new sci-fi film Children of Men strikes me as a highly probable representation about our own future. The film's central conceit - that one day, all of humanity will be rendered suddenly and irreversibly infertile - doesn't seem too likely. But as a reproduction of a modern Western society dissolving, shot through with a documentary-style realism, Cuaron's vision is frighteningly relatable and natural on screen.

It's this vision of a world on the edge of annihilation that makes Children of Men so compelling. The story, based on a novel by P.D. James, sets Cuaron up to explore one of Hollywood's favorte, fallback themes. As Homer Simpson would say, "When there's nothing left to believe in...believe in hope." The inability to reproduce stands in for any existential threat from which there can be no escape. (Global warming pops immediately to mind). This is something that will end our way of life, no one has come up with any solution, and this realization causes the masses of people on this planet to collectively lose their shit and destroy the world. Yet even in the midst of near-complete despair, there are people who continue to believe. And when the miraculous finally does happen, they are the ones who are ready to lay down their lives in the service of the future.

Like I said, blah blah blah. Nothing new to see there. Cuaron, the extraordinary talent behind Y Tu Mama Tambien and by far the best entry in the Harry Potter series, Prisoner of Azkaban, has an extremely subtle touch, so the film never descends completely into sentimentality. But Cuaron still lingers too long in Frank Darabont Land, milking moments of emotional resonance for every last morsel of sweet, life-giving pathos.

Where his film excels, indeed where it stands out from just about any other film released in 2006 that I have seen, is in the intricate, detailed and carefully-considered conceptualization of 2027 England on screen. A disc jockey plays an oldie from 2003, referring to it as a relic from a better, more innocent time, when we were still free to ignore the various lethal threats to our species. Cuaron couldn't be any more frank about sending his audience a wake-up call: He's talking about us, right now, watching the movie. We're contributing to this grim, dystopian nightmare-world. It may already be too late.

Theo (Clive Owen), a nihilistic beaurocrat, has made his peace with extinction. He doesn't even seem that sorry to see humanity go. He gets high with his friend Jasper (Michael Caine), a goofy recluse living in an isolated cabin with his traumatized, mute wife, and does his best to ignore the fact that England has become an authoritarian police state. Looking the other way as illegal immigrants (called "fugees" in the film) are rounded up and sent to camps is easy enough. Theo even manages to dodge the occasional explosion in his favorite coffee shop. But once his radical activist ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) captures him and recruits him into the service of the underground, he can't avoid trouble any longer.

Julian's group of extremists have found a young pregnant woman, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey). They want Theo to use his (limited) political influence to get Kee a licence to travel across the country, in the hopes of meeting up with a mysterious group known as The Human Project that will transport her and the baby to safety. Soon enough, the reluctant Theo finds himself roped into a grand journey, transporting Kee out of the grimy fortress of London, away from various groups of rabid ideologues who desire Kee's baby for their own political purposes and into the protective hands of the Human Project.

Obviously, the choice to focus on the neo-fascist British government scapegoating illegal immigrants, rounding them up and depositing them into camps, has great relevance to modern-day America. Basically, we are already doing this, and we are driven by a far less severe threat than the society in the film. Cuaron soberly observes people turning to a dictatorship out of fear. He explores how a clever despot can channel hate against the oppressed and powerless into ensuring continued dominance and how mass media has been corrupted into an establishment propaganda machine.

A double-dealing collective of subversives, fronted by the self-serving Luke (Chiwetel Ejiofor), likewise showcase the fallibility of ideologues, even the well-intentioned. Neo-Marxists seeking to use Kee's baby to spark a People's Revolution, they become a greater threat to Theo's mission than even the strongarm police force hunting him down at every turn. Though I'm not certain I agree with the implication that radical leftists present as great a danger to humanity's future than the fascist-sympathizing corporatists represented by the film's Ministry of Homeland Security, political observations in Children of Men are, on the whole, remarkably astute.

Beyond the overarching political perspective of the film, dozens of careful, specific details in Theo's environment really bring this far-out, improbable scenario into perspective, inviting a contemporary audience into this world and giving us clear points of reference and comparison. Advertisements for the euthanizing drug Quietus are ubiquitous on the streets and trains around London; gossip spreads around town that the effects are painless and even enjoyable. (Kee describes it using the common future-slang term "suave.")

I previously mentioned the 2003 "classic rock" song on the soundtrack, which highlights the clever devices Cuaron employs to fill the film with music from our own time. (The Dude-esque Jasper, still a fan of the music of his youth, bumps Radiohead while he enjoys his afternoon j.)

At one point, Theo gazes out a train at graffiti reading: "Would the last person alive please turn off the lights." It's a perfect, succinct expression of the commonly-felt desperation. If no one will be around in 50 years to see what we've done, if nothing matters and everything that will ever happen has already happened, why continue living at all? Particularly when to keep living requires such tremendous exertion?

This hopeless, consequence-free world has become an unpredictable, ugly and exceptionally violent place. Cuaron and his long-time collaborator, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeszki, use exceptionally long takes to build suspense before unleashing fast, propulsive bursts of bloodshed. Employing handheld cameras to get close up to the action, Cuaron and Lubeszki have shot the most intense, exciting and brutally realistic action sequences of the year. These are scenes that more closely resemble riot footage on the news than the typical Ridley Scott circle jerk. A seige by raiders on a compact car driven by Luke commences breathlessly within a single take. An amazing single shot finds Theo hiding from armed guards as he checks a variety of vehicles' ignitions for working keys. The final leg of the journey, an extended chase through a city-sized refugee camp undergoing a fiery insurrection, makes full use of Lubeszki's roving camera and the remarkably immersive sound mix to jolt and unnerve.

Bullets, shattered glass, missiles, grenades and assorted debris rains down on Theo from all directions, blocking his visibility, spinning him around in circles and causing him to trip repeatedly and slice his leg. The disorientation and panic comes fast once the gunfire gets heated, but Theo himself never turns violent or runs amok. He never even handles a gun. He just protects Kee and runs for his life, the ultimate survivor in a world filled with no one but survivors. The entire set piece ranks among the most inventive and memorable sequences of 2006.

So, what I'm saying is that this movie's good. Very good. Worth seeing. But Children of Men is not without its problems. For such a beautifully-made film (the whole thing is probably the best-shot movie of the year, and among the best-directed) with so many winning little details and penetrating observations, it doesn't end particularly well. Cuaron wraps up the film on a note of optimistic uncertainty - something has happened that seems positive, but we're never told what the implications of the film's action will be, and the pat "hope is all you need" homilies didn't really do it for me. Anyway, perhaps the director and I are just at odds about the fate of humans on this planet, but the build-up here's much better than the pay-off.

Monday, December 25, 2006


String Theory postulates the existence of many more dimensions than are discernible to the human eye. (Currently, majority opinion sets the number at 11, if memory serves.) This includes the three dimensions in which human beings operate, plus the 4th dimension of time, plus a whole bunch of other indescribable, unknown planes of being located right on top of our own.

I believe INLAND EMPIRE may be David Lynch's attempt to bring this notion into the world of cinema. He has directed the world's first and only 11-D film.

The good news is, the physical strain of viewing the film's full 3 hours won't give you a headache and you don't need special glasses. The bad news is, the mental strain of viewing the film's full 3 hours may give you a headache, and you'll need patience.

Though typically referred to as "surreal" or incomprehensible, many Lynch films have a relatively simple "key" that, once detected, translates all the apparently random action into a rational text. Once it becomes clear that the first half of Mulholland Drive is a dreamed recollection of the second half's events, the pieces fit together remarkably well. Lost Highway becomes significantly less distant and puzzling once the mobius-strip end-is-the-beginning-of-the-end mindfuck wears off.

INLAND EMPIRE has a single scene that serves as something of a signpost for where all the overlapping, confused stories are headed. Actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) invites a new Polish neighbor (Grace Zabriskie) into her lavishly appointed home for coffee. The strange woman takes a peculiar interest in Nikki's hopeful new project, a Southern-set romantic drama called On High in Blue Tomorrows. Unbeknowst to Nikki, the film is an adaptation of an obscure Polish gypsy legend, one that inspired an never-finished, doomed German production several years earlier. The new film's director, Kingsley Stewart (an unctuous Jeremy Irons) and his needy screenwriter (Harry Dean Stanton, who gets the film's best monologue) warn their stars that both of prior film's leads were brutally murdered.

The first half-hour or so of INLAND EMPIRE coherently follows Nikki and her co-star Devon (Justin Theroux) as they rehearse and film scenes from the movie. It's something of a Tennessee Williams knock-off in which Nikki's married character, Susan, carries on an affair with Devon's character, Billy. A behind-the-scenes romance between Nikki and Devon begins to mirror the on-screen pairing. Like her character, Nikki suffers in a loveless marriage to a possessive, fearsome brute (Peter Lucas) who will kill her and Devon if he finds out about the infidelity.

Once Nikki and Devon consummate their illicit love, Lynch's film departs from this vague storyline for about 150 minutes of madness. Like our universe's 11 nebulously connected dimensions, several of the film's key sequences of events unfold on top of one another, throwing all notions of chronology and continuity out the window.

Nikki and Devon seem to swap places with their characters. The story of INLAND EMPIRE and the story of On High in Blue Tomorrows coalesce into one sequence of iconic, repeated events - characters who should not fall in love do so anyway, they split apart, they get back together, they get caught and then Dern's character is brutally beaten. Additionally, we cut to Lodz, Poland, to see sequences that could be taken from the unfinished German version of the story or the tragic behind-the-scenes romance that shut down the production in the first place. Then there are scenes in which Nikki appears to be a Hollywood prostitute wasting time with a chorus of wily hooker cohorts. And then, there are the clips from an intensely unnerving sitcom starring actors in rabbit costumes. Scott Coffey, Laura Harring and Naomi Watts from Mulholland Drive star in these deeply disturbing sketches based on short films Lynch had made for his website.

The key, I think, is to watch for beams of light. For the first time, Lynch has shot an entire film on digital video, using a Sony DSR-PD150 to give the film a muddled, grainy look that he punctuates by sporadically bathing everything in bright, all-concealing white light. The film opens with one such beam of light, streaming in front of the side of the screen and looking very much like the product of a film projector.

Of course, with that first image of a projected beam of light, Lynch starts off by adding layers to the cinematic artifice (much as Bergman did in Persona by opening the film with a shot of film spooling into a camera). At other times, flickering light (again, reminiscent of a dark theater while a film is projected) interrupts the on-screen action, often cueing an abrupt change in time, location, subject or all three. The overall aesthetic, with its muted or absent colors, eerie lighting, blatantly artificial mise-en-scene and moody atmosphere, closely resembles silent films, both those of the German Expressionists whom Lynch previously referenced in the classic Eraserhead and some of the abstract neo-silent work of Canadian Guy Maddin.

We're watching a movie begin within the movie that has already begun, and the film will just continue to pile on more "cameras," more "audiences" and more levels of "reality" as it continues. Characters watch TV's on which characters look through windows that reveal movie screens that contain mirrors in which the reflections of the original character's faces can be made out. Nikki describes her state of mind as akin to a darkened theater with images passing by on a screen, then later she finds herself in just such a theater, watching her own story play out in front of her like a movie. (Could INLAND EMPIRE be a genuine attempt to catalogue her mental process in cinema form?)

At one point, Nikki's invisible Polish counterpart shows her how to use a cigarette to burn a hole in a silk sheet, through which she can pierce the fabric of space-time and behold the future. As Lynch's camera swoops through the hole itself, we're confronted with a difficult question: are we seeing Nikki's point of view? Is this her future? Or did we just zoom in for a close-up on a silk sheet before cutting to the next scene? The film gets so bewildering because there's no correct answer to these sorts of questions.

Consider, as well, the conditions of the shoot. Lynch worked without a script and without permits. He would pick his actors, give them their dialogue for the day on the way to the shoot and then just begin wherever and whenever he pleased. Live performances are captured in the moment with as little mediation as possible, and no rehearsal. (The awkward rehearsal scenes Kingsley orchestrates for On High in Blue Tomorrows give you a sense for Lynch's attitudes towards actorly preparation.)

Therefore, what you are constantly seeing not just the realities of Nikki and Susan collapsing on one another, but Nikki and Susan and Laura Dern, all at once, occupying the same space but not necessarily the same body. (After all, through the use of artful cutting, Laura Dern can sometimes disappear from the shot while Nikki appears to remain.)

It all begins to feel intentioanlly repetitive because Lynch's characters are stuck in a feedback loop. They observe things and then relate anecdotes about the observations in a way that makes sense to their experience, but they cannot escape the endless cycle of watching and then retelling, watching and then retelling. Could this be the curse placed on this old gypsy story? Once it has been told, it must be retold continually until the storyteller dies?

In one reality, a bruised Nikki/Susan relates a series of sad stories about personal abuse she has suffered at the hands of different men to a cold, unfeeling bureaucrat with crooked glasses. In another, a weeping girl (Karolina Gruszka) watches earlier scenes from INLAND EMPRIE, and the anthropomorphized rabbit sitcom, from a hotel room. In another, a dying Nikki/Susan coughs up blood on Hollywood Boulevard while transients discuss the fastest route to Pomona via public transportation.

So the light comes in and illuminates one small portion of the story at a time, as a spotlight turning on as Nikki tip-toes through a room transforms her from a stalker into the center of attention. Focus is thus taken away from all the other concurrent events that influence the action but don't make up its center.

The light all emanates from a single source, Lynch's camera, but by the time it is done turning corners and invading nooks, all kinds of oddities have turned up and thus have been folded into the finished film. The credits play out over a house party that includes most of the film's characters, as well as actress Laura Harring playing herself out of the bunny suit and Nastassja Kinski. Cause they were there.

If I had to offer my overall theory as to the film's plot, it would be based around this notion of inclusion. We are seeing the effect that filming this story has on Nikki the actress. By investing so much raw emotion into this cursed story of woe, she allows it to invade her own private life, and in the process becomes unstuck in time. (Almost like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughter-House Five.) Hence the film's constant shots of Dern wandering down poorly-lit corridors, hallways and alleys. She's constantly struggling to "right herself," to wind up back in the normal world of the present day by purging this evil from her mind, but she can't ever get re-settled.

Thus she experiences the trauma suffered by the original German cast of the first film, the present-day pain of her own failed marriage and the worrisome future affair with Devon/Billy all at the same time. This constant, grinding sadness and frustration, the utter inability to reconcile herself to a single state of being or come to full terms with her inner pain, comes through with striking clarity in the Laura Dern performance. It's clearly one of the year's best, made all the more remarkable considering Dern was given no time to study the material beforehand and so little insight into conceptualization and tone of the finished film.

I'll probably need some more viewings to put this structure together completely, what with the sitcom rabbits, the prostitutes who randomly break into the Loco-Motion or Nina Simone lip synchs and the creepy subplot with Julia Ormond as a reluctant assassin armed with a screwdriver. (There's three hours of this stuff, folks...Be prepared.)

But I'm pretty sure it all has something to do with the effect of Stories and Drama on the way people perceive the world, how our minds view us as characters in our own story and dictate behavior accordingly. Fictional stories are written and films made that pretend to foretell future events, but they have such an impact on their audiences in the present, they eventually influence that future in a host of unpredictable ways. Jules Verne's stories, in other words, didn't just predict the future, but directly influenced its development. Lynch's story could be rendering this concept more concretely - an old gypsy legend weighs on a woman in the present, possibly even (to borrow a friend's hypothesis) possesses her body, in an attempt to continue recreating itself.

Mulholland Drive, composed of a series of scenes that are entertaining and accessible if taken on their own terms, didn't necessarily make immediate sense when fit together. But it becomes more or less clear after a few viewings. That was a story that didn't quite make complete sense. INLAND EMPIRE, on the other hand, is a film that abandons traditional narrative to take a closer look at the mechanics of storytelling itself.

The experience of actually watching such a film will be draining for most audiences, I suspect. (Several people walked out of tonight's screening at the Sunset 5). In addition to being trippy and non-narrative and long, the movie is fucking frightening. INLAND EMPIRE is an intense, heady experience, almost confrontational in its desire to provoke and disturb. The imagery, lighting, the musical cues and the performances inspired direct emotional, visceral responses in me that I did not anticipate. One shot, presumably taken from the perspective of a corpse, has several members of the slut chorus peering directly into the camera, asking one another "Who is she?" For some reason, having Jordan Ladd's huge head peering at me made me extremely uncomfortable. The way these inhuman faces are made-up and lit just feels worng, somehow. Uncanny.

Ditto the talking rabbits, who speak non-sequiturs in monotone yet seem constantly on the verge of doing something shocking, unnatural and violent. Another image, of a maniacally grinning Dern running toward the camera on an isolated desert road, will give me nightmares tonight GUARANTEED.

After the film, my friend (the one with the good theory) leaned over and said to me that, should Lynch ever decide to make a straight-ahead horror film, it would be the greatest of all time. I'm inclined to agree, even though I think, at this point, that would be a waste of the guy's tremendous talents. He's already made the year's scariest film, but it's so very much more than that.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Feminist Horror Double-Feature

The 2005 British monster movie The Descent and the 1971 ghost story Let's Scare Jessica to Death should swap titles. The 1971 film, a peculiar and unsettling riff on Polanski's Repulsion, deals with a young woman's tragic descent into madness. And the 2005 film features six girls - one of whom is, in fact, named Jessica - who are scared to death when they encounter some flesh-eating nasties while spelunking in Appalachia. I was going to add here, for comic effect, another example of this happening, two movies whose titles are 100% interchangable. But it turns out that it's not really all that special and could be done with all kinds of titles. Because movie titles are vague and generic: One Good Cop, One Fine Day, A Fine Mess. The Thing! There's a movie called The Thing! But just roll with me here, I needed an introduction.


Neil Marshall's film takes forever to get going and then stumbles towards the end, but it largely works as a tense examination of some universal human fears. To be lost, trapped underground, injured, untrusted by your fellows, surrounded by voracious monsters and low on supplies is to be well and truly fucked. Doomed, you might even say. Like Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, a film with which it shares not just a theme but a milieu, Marshall's film drops characters in the midst of a nearly-unsurvivable situation, illustrating their tenacity and will merely by their continued existence.

I've referred to the movie in the title as "feminist" not in any sort of strict, Film Theory way, though I do feel like both of this films could probably be subjected to an enlightening scholarly feminist critique. The Descent is just a movie solely focused on a group of female friends that deals, thematically, with a very feminine strength of will and core toughness. These women strike me as significantly well-rounded - they have attributes we'd consider "girly" (particularly in terms of competitiveness with one another), yet they're plainly badass uber-jocks. Plus, aside from a dead husband, they don't even talk about men very often. Any horror film with three-dimensional women heroes who exist on their own terms like that strikes me as "feminist" in some way.

Despite all the myriad external horrors faced down by its six heroines, The Descent largely focuses on the selfish irrationality of human behavior. "You never truly know someone," the film posits, "until you're trapped underground with them whilst being pursued by angry CHUD."

Each year, Juno (Natalie Mendoza) organizes an "extreme" vacation for her immediate circle of friends. After the last excursion, a white-water river rafting adventure, Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) got into a car accident that took the life of her husband and son. So this year's event, a trek through some unexplored caves in the Appalachian Mountains, is a considerably more somber, emotional affair.

Juno's plan goes wrong immediately. The passageways are hazardously narrow. Rockslides and cave-ins block the only known entrance. Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) slips through a crevasse and shatters her leg. Slowly, old resentments boil up, panic starts to set in and the girls begin to turn on one another. And that's when the voracious, blind, humanoid predators show up.

Marshall excels at building to unanticipated "scare" moments. If you watch enough horror movies, predicting the moment when the alien/creature/monster/slasher will pop into the frame becomes fairly elementary. The Descent rather consistantly manages to subvert these expectations. Marshall will build to an obvious "jump" moment, then hold back, then give it to you 45 seconds later. One scene, among the first clear shots of the monsters, took me completely off-guard and - with the 5.1 cranking and all the lights off - kind of made me lose my shit for a second.

The first half hour takes a bit too long and spends an inordinate amount of time setting Sarah up as a shattered, greiving widow and mother, but this unforced naturalism and character development obviously helps in the second half, when things get gory and chaotic. The Romero-esque insanity of the final 20 minutes, in which a few surviving spelunkers get medieval on some molemen, are worth the occasional slow patch during the set-up.

The dimly-lit cave setting lets Marshall get away with keeping much of the action off-screen, but there's plenty of brutal carnage on display for gorehounds. Plenty. (Close-ups of zombies chewing on living victim's intestines have suddenly become all the rage.) As I said, Marshall kind of loses it at the very end, seemingly unsure of whether or not his Final Girl (to steal a term from Carol Clover) deserves a happy ending. This just doesn't strike me as the kind of movie that needs a confusing, ambiguous conclusion. They all live or they all die. Simple, cold, efficient.


John Hancock's low-budget 1971 film, on the other hand, had no choice but to end ambiguously. The Big Question driving the film is the lead character's sanity. Is Jessica's house really haunted by the ghost of a 20 year old girl who drowned there 100 years ago? Or is Jessica just going insane again, concocting the film's scares in her fevered mind? By the conclusion, it's absolutely certain that Jessica has been scared - perhaps fatally? - but has she been doing it to herself the entire time? And if so, how are we complicit? (As in "Let us scare Jessica to death.")

Jessica (Zohra Lampert) has just been released from a mental hospital following a 6 month stay. She doesn't tell her doting husband Duncan (Barton Heyman), but she's still hearing voices, voices reminding her that they will never go away. They've just dropped their life savings on an old isolated house near an orchard, which they promptly move into along with Duncan's hippie friend Woody (Kevin O'Conner). No sooner do they arrive than they encounter Emily (Mariclare Costello), a drifter who has been squatting in their new home.

The town around the apple farm is not exactly sprawling, and the local citizens (all men bearing hideous deformities and scars) are not exactly inviting, so Jessica and Duncan wind up spending most of their time home alone. Why Duncan thought this set of circumstances - utterly alone in a farmhouse with an infamously grim history - would benefit his already ailing wife is unclear. In point of fact, the house's former tenants and gruesome legacy weigh heavily on Jessica's head, along with the paranoid fear that her unnamed "illness" (probably schizophrenia) has returned.

Hancock's film captures a specific, creeping fear particularly well: the fear amongst those who have been sick that their illness will return. Jessica is driven crazy in some ways by the fear of going crazy. She gives herself freely over to delusional paranoia and depression because she believes these symptoms are her destiny.

Duncan and Jessica meet with a local antique dealer, trying to sell some of the old items from the house's attic, and thus hear the story of Abigail Bishop, a young woman who drowned in their very cove. One photo of Abigail remains in the house, slipped behind a valuable old silver frame, and she closely resembles Emily. Could this mysterious stranger actually be a spirit trapped in the house, and is she sending secret messages only Jessica can hear? Or does it simply seem that way because we view the film through Jessica's eyes, and she's crazy?

I brought up the Polanski film as an obvious predecessor to Let's Scare Jessica for a few reasons, all of them thematic. In truth, the Hancock's style and tone (not to mention his title) owe more of a debt to the Italian horror films of this time period, amny of them focused on innocent women trapped in haunted houses with violent pasts. Carole (played by Catherine Deneueve in Repulsion) and Jessica share a phobia of excessive male attention and disgust at the leers an attractive woman receives in public. The men in the town, who seem at first to be rude because of identity politics (expressing distaste at the new hippie neighbors), come to seem like a zombified mob of brutes in the grips of some kind of carnal frenzy. Both eventually act on their (somewhat) delusional phobias by brutalizing the men in their lives.

Hancock's larger point seems to relate to male possessiveness over women. Jessica is obviously sick, which Duncan attempts to remedy be re-establishing his ownership of her. He's in essence removing her from the hospital and any other familiar environs and stowing her away in an isolated country house. Emily, if she is really a ghost or reflection of the long-deceased Abigail, lives out the 1971 equivalent of a homemaker's nightmare - she's literally trapped inside a big house, dressed in a wedding dress, with no hope of escape EVER. Even the ghostly voice that calls to Jessica gives her instructions designed to incapacitate her free will. "Stay with me." "Come to me." "Never leave me, Jessica."

Sure, it's a bit reductive, but it's still pretty entertaining as far as haunted house movies go. Not to mention creepy. Hancock really uses the whispery ghost voices to chilling effect, placing them at random unexpected intervals and giving them an increasingly erratic, screechy, almost hostile timbre. Robert Baldwin's synthetic, tinny score adds to the atmosphere of woozy, disoriented anxiety.

The biggest flaws are exactly what you'd expect from a low-budget 1971 horror film. Several scenes ramble on without developing, including far too many musical montages of Jessica running around the woods near her home in a daze, and the performances are amateurish and disconnected. Still, this is a far better-than-average horror oddity worth a second look, and freshly available on a very nicely-remastered DVD with a nice, bright, anamorphic picture.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Earnest and Gigolo Gallo

Vincent Gallo totally rules. He and Crispin Glover are my two favorite insane maverick American filmmaking weirdos. They really should work together some day. Now, most likely in response to overwhelming demand, the creative force behind Buffallo '66 and The Brown Bunny is kindly making himself available sexually to female fans via his website. For the low low price of $50,000. (A tip of my hat to Hollywood-Elsewhere for the link).

Have you ever watched a movie and fallen in love with one of the actors? The way they looked or a character they played? Afterwards you thought of them over and over. Daydreaming, imagining things, sexy things. When I was very young I was madly in love with Tuesday Weld and Charlotte Rampling. On my 14th birthday I went to see the film Rolling Thunder and had my biggest crush of all on the actress Linda Haynes. I wished and wished and wished everyday that I could meet all these girls. I thought of a lot of sexy things with Susan Blakely after seeing her in Lords of Flatbush. In my mind I could do with her anything I wanted to do. So believe me, I know and understand what it's like to wish and dream about spending time with a movie star. Doing things that couples do. Couples in love. At least couples where the guy is hot and knows how to handle a chick.

Hopefully, Vincent's planning on pitching professional woo at fans slightly older than 14, but he does make an excellent point. Attractive celebrities are bound to inspire enormous crushes in frequent movie-goers, so it's almost surprising (almost) that none have come upw ith this idea before. (When I was 14, no amount of money would have been too much for a night with Demi Moore, Nicole Kidman or Cindy Crawford.)

I, Vincent Gallo, star of such classics as Buffalo 66 and The Brown Bunny have decided to make myself available to all women.

Clearly, he's joking. Or at least, he's designed this stunt to be funny. I don't know if that means he's not actually serious about going through with this, should any wealthy, horny women contact him. I mean, the guy wants to keep making idiosyncratic, personal films...He probably wouldn't be turning down $50,000 unless the woman was particularly beastly.

All women who can afford me, that is. For the modest fee of $50,000 plus expenses, I can fulfill the wish, dream, or fantasy of any naturally born female.

Well, women do like confidence...

The fee covers one evening with Vincent Gallo. For those who wish to enjoy my company for a weekend, the fee is increased to a mere $100,000. Heavy set, older, red heads and even black chicks can have me if they can pay the bill.

Even black chicks, huh? You know, Vince, you'll make less as a porn star once your fans see you having sex with a black co-star. I'm just saying, assuming that is the next career route once you've tired of being a High-Class Man-Whore.

No real female will be refused. However, I highly frown upon any male having even the slightest momentary thought or wish that they could ever become my client. No way Jose. However, female couples of the lesbian persuasion can enjoy a Vincent Gallo evening together for $100,000. $200,000 buys the lesbos a weekend. A weekend that will have them second-guessing.

Second guessing their decision to spend $200,000 with the wiry guy from Palookaville, perhaps?

I am willing to travel worldwide to accommodate clients. However, travel days are billed at $50,000 per plus all premium flight fees. Scanning for STD's is required as is bathing and grooming prior to our encounter. Detailed photos of potential clients also required prior. An extra fee for security to protect me is charged on top of the fantasy fee. Security fees will vary depending on the details of an encounter and how much security I will need.

Who is he, Jack Bauer? I guess this is just in case the Vincent Gallo Fan Association of Kabul decides to each chip in and buy their idol for a weekend. He's got to indemnify himself against all potential circumstances, after all. The guy's a celebrity.

Potential clients are advised to screen the controversial scene from The Brown Bunny to be sure for themselves that they can fully accommodate all of me. Clients who have doubt may want to test themselves with an unusually thick and large prosthetic prior to meeting me. You may be surprised just how much you can handle and how good it feels.

Seriously, I've been kind of making fun of the guy, but this whole thing is hilarious and awesome. If he actually ends up having any paid encounters, he should really start up a blog to provide updates.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Badge Patrol

Two different Nicolas Cage movies have hit DVD in the past few weeks, and he plays police officers in both. Oh, and they both have titles that begin with the letter "W." That's about all they have in common.


Mormon moralizer/writer/director Neil LaBute remakes Anthony Shaffer and Robin Hardy's 1973 cult classic, surgically removing all the screwy fun and replacing it with vapid horror cliches. Hirign Neil LaBute to rework this grim story of paganism run rampant on an isolated island makes a kind of perverse sense. Of all the major religions being practiced in America today, Mormonism is clearly the most cult-like. (I'm not saying it's a cult, necessarily. Just that it is somewhat cult-like.)

Additionally, LaBute has repeatedly turned to the idea of karmic retribution in his work. At the heart of romantic horrorshows like Your Friends and Neighbors and In the Company of Men is a burning question: How can we be expected to make righteous decisions in a world where evil deeds have no consequences? Can we even, under such circumstances, be certain about what it means to behave righteously?

Certainly, these ideas are at play in a story about a religious man who descends into a living nightmare while investigating a bizarre cult on a remote island.

But, no, rather than focus on anything interesting about the original Wicker Man, LaBute has made a stupid, mindless and boring Hollywood horror movie out of the raw materials of its plot. The only thing that remains consistant from his previous, more interesting work is his continued lack of regard for female characters. Typically, LaBute's women are either spineless doormats who crave male attention and dominance (like Amy Brenneman in Your Friends and Neighbors) or conniving, castrating hellsluts (like Rachel Weisz in The Shape of Things). I saw a production of LaBute's play Bash! in Washington DC a few years back, which includes a monologue based on Medea, who murdered her children to please her lover. (Calista Flockhart did the scene in the play's New York run). That myth sets the tone for all of the man's fictional women - cold, needy, possessive, capable of grim violence if pressed.

I know that Americans are extremely sensitive when it comes to the combination of sex and religion in fiction, but The Wicker Man doesn't really make sense without them. In the original film, the inhabitants of Summerisle (off the coast of Scotland) practice a form of paganism that's focused obsessively on human sexuality. At times, the film almost feels like softcore pornography, particularly in a goofy scene where Britt Ekland does a silly dance in the buff. The locals' free-spirited, earthy, orgy-esque rituals are then purposefully contrasted with the rigid, uptight Christianity of Edward Woodward's policeman character.

In LaBute's update, unsuspecting police officer Edward Malus (Cage) witnesses a car accident that causes him significant psychological trauma. (We know he's bothered by the memory because he keeps having flashbacks in black-and-white with dramatic music playing in the background.) He then receives a mysterious letter from an old girlfriend, Willow. (This is Britt Ekland in the original, here played sans naked dancing by Kate Beahan). Willow's daughter has gone missing somewhere on Summersisle and the community's elders aren't talking; she wants Edward to come there and find out the truth.

(Oddly, LaBute changes the island's name from Summerisle to Summersisle. What gives?)

Edward finds his way to the remote island (this time located near Washington State), only to find his investigation treated with hostility by the matriarchal society of beekeepers therein. This is doubly unfortunate for Edward - none of these women will tell him anything, because they loathe and mistrust men, and his allergy to bee stings puts him at great risk on an island devoted largely to hive maintenance. And eventually he learns the shocking secret as to why he's been called to Summersisle, which is not shocking in the 1973 original but is even less shocking here.

By changing these central concepts around, LaBute robs the story of its guiding metaphors, themes and purpose. Anything to focus on, really. Now, it's just a silly story about a guy who finds himself in a mixed-up crazy world full of feminist witches who continually sic their mean-tempered insect friends on him. Even the additional element LaBute added himself, the opening with the car accident and Edward's continual use of mind-altering medication throughout the film, ends up being totally irrelevant.

What's odd is that LaBute has made dark comedy before, and that's undoubtedly the spirit of Hardy's original film. So why is the new version such a grim, pallid undertaking? It's perfectly obvious from the start what everyone's up to merely by their behavior. In the original film, the villagers behave mysteriously and keep their motives unknown. Here, they're clearly plotting against Malus from the first scene. The plot unfolds with no surprise or tension at all. "Trouble's coming...Oh, man, something unsettling's going to happen...Here it comes...Oh, that was it!"

Seriously, I've given this some thought, and nothing in this film works. Certainly, none of the changes feel worthwhile or well-considered. Recasting the Christopher Lee role in the original with Ellen Burstyn (Lord Summerisle becomes Sister Summersisle, because now it's a matriarchy) was an inspired touch, but the part has been severely reduced. Burstyn doesn't appear until the end of the film, and she's certainly not a threatening figure, in her flowing robes and blue war paint. The entire ritual that closes the film, with its focus this time around on the cruelty and barbarism of the act itself, feels tame and incomplete, like an afterthought. But if LaBute wasn't interested in the religious commentary of the original film, nor with exploring the Christopher Lee character, nor with the frank sexuality, nor with the dark comedy, nor with the iconic imagery of the conclusion...what the hell did he want to remake Wicker Man for in the first place?


Paul Greengrass' deeply inappropriate United 93 has won Critics' Association awards and end of the year accolades across the country. (Recently, it won the Dallas-Ft. Worth Critics poll as Best Picture, historically the most accurate indicator of who will win the Oscar.) It seems likely that my least favorite movie of the year will win Best Picture two years in a row!

I hated that movie and felt that Greengrass was attempting to crassly use the subject of 9/11 to confer some kind of "seriousness" to himself and his filmmaking. So I understand that, before I can praise Oliver Stone's 9/11 movie, some explanation is in order.

Stone's film, in which Cage and Michael Pena portray two real New York City Port Authority officers who were stuck under the rubble of Ground Zero when the Trade Center collapsed on top of them, follows a traditional dramatic narrative. It is a story of bravery and survival, about two guys who unquestioningly went to do their difficult job, and all of the other men and women who rose to the challenge when they needed rescue.

United 93 serves no purpose - it documents an unfolding tragedy with accuracy (as near as I can tell...), but without thought. The film has no perspective beyond its own self-importance. It knows it matters, and it knows the order in which things happened on September 11th, but that's about all it knows.

Now, one could certainly take issue with the ideas and assumptions behind Oliver Stone's film, but even that would concede it has some ideas and assumptions. It's not just terrorism porn. (In fact, there really isn't anything in the way of on-screen terrorism. One minute there are buildings, the next there's a lot of rubble.) It is, in many ways, a simple movie with a simple story. It's about heroes, how the truly bold individuals will do something dangerous without consideration for their own safety, if it's the right thing to do. It's about how being needed, desperately needed, is both a great blessing and a horrible curse.Like a lot of Stone's films, it gets a little hokey and lays on some symbolism a bit too thick. But as a testament to the horror of being buried alive and to the selfless bravery of the rescue workers of 9/11, it's extremely visceral and effective.

John McLoughlin (Cage) gets the call after the first plane hits the Trade Center. He prepared the contingency plans for an attack on the WTC after the first plot in 1993, so he's the natural choice to head up the Port Authority's task force on 9/11. Whiel McLoughlin heads downtown, the second plane hits and the city enters panic mode. He and his team are just unpacking and getting their bearings when the towers implode literally on top of their heads. McLoughlin and a rookie on his team, Jimeno (Pena), survive by diving into an open elevator shaft. Most aren't so lucky.

The rest of the film cuts between McLoughlin and Pena, pinned beneath 20 feet of rubble, their worried families and the motley assemblage of motivated citizens scanning Ground Zero for survivors. Though they are the most familiar (many feel ripped right out of Apollo 13), the scenes with the wives aren't as bland as you'd normally expect in a film like this, due mainly to the two actresses in the roles.

Maria Bello plays Donna McLoughlin as an expert at face-saving duplicity. Privately, she's a basket case once the word comes in that her husband is MIA, but she pulls it together for the sanity of her fellow cop wives and her kids. Maggie Gyllenhaal doesn't have much to do as Allison Jimeno, but does get in one really great, very real moment towards the end of the film, cracking one of the film's lone warm smiles as a sense of relief washes over her face.

Intense and wrenching as the scenes underground are, the most interesting, compelling material follows the rescue workers above ground, risking their own necks combing the still-smoldering crash site in an increasingly-futile attempt to save lives. I'm not sure I've ever seen a movie about rescuing individuals trapped under collapsed buildings, and World Trade Center does a great job of emphasizing the horror of being pinned by twisted steel and concrete and the laborious difficulty of extracting individuals stuck in this way.

As this is an Oliver Stone film, albeit a restrained one, there are still a few cornball excesses. Fantasy sequences in which Jesus shows up to bring the unfortunates water interrupt the flow of these scenes. It's a cheap device that reminds you you're watching a movie, and kind of an exaggerated, eager-to-please one at that. A few lines of dialogue here and there similarly break the reality of the film. (At one point, a Marine who has come to the rescue announces, "We are Marines and you are our mission!" and I rolled my eyes clear into the next apartment.)

But overall this is a surprisingly strong film about a subject I was not keen to see depicted on screen. I think the secret is that, though it's about a true story of 9/11, the subject is much more broad. Stone tells a simple narrative about people uniting to help one another. He and screenwriter Andrewa Berloff use sentimentality, but only for emphasis, not fatally so. Don't believe the hype - this is the significantly stronger 9/11 film in pretty much every way. Rather than fetishizing terrorism as a stylistic exercize, Stone has mined a recent tragedy to find a glint of hope and inspiration amidst the terror.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Little Miss Sunshine

A common tip for beginning screenwriters is to make your first script a road trip comedy. Because of the obvious, linear nature of the narrative - characters begin in one spot and must end in another by a given time - they are theoretically easier to construct. But I also think this is good advice because the road trip formula just works really well. So much of comedy is inventing disparate characters and then forcing them into confrontations. (Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple" represents 20th Century America's most elegantly simple demonstration of this concept.) And what setting could lend itself to confrontation and hostility better than a hot van in the midst of a long road trip?

Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (married commercial directors making their feature debut) perhaps take this advice too much to heart in Little Miss Sunshine. The script by Michael Arndt clings desperately to the established formula for these sorts of mainstream comedies, even when the perfunctory twists and turns set in stone epochs ago by the Comedy Gods don't really suit his story. Faris and Dayton, though they demonstrate tremendous promise in working with actors and get in some nice-looking shots of the American Southwest, fail to bring the subtle touch that guys like Hal Ashby, Todd Solondz or Wes Anderson routinely bring to this kind of dark, quirky, human comedy.

A sleeper hit this summer, Little Miss Sunshine appears poised to garner some Oscar nominations, if only because the all of the big studio's hotly-anticipated winter tentpoles have collapsed on themselves. (The K-Fed record release party was better-attended than Blood Diamond this past weekend.) Clearly, this is excessive praise for a movie that's entertaining but unoriginal. The only award I would seriously consider would be Supporting Actor for Alan Arkin, who does amazing work with a relatively small role as a horny, heroin-addicted grandfather.

Yes, I know. I complained that Little Miss Sunshine doesn't take risks and then immediately mentioned that it features a heroin-snorting grandfather. This is the central conceit of the film - it's an extremely typical, predictable road trip comedy starring America's most disturbed, dysfunctional family. All the laughs, seriously all of them, come from the goofy but likable personalities on board this lemon-yellow VW van. The story rolls on limply from one obvious set-up to the next.

Motivational speaker Richard (Greg Kinnear) plans to spend the weekend waiting for an important call from a publisher (Bryan Cranston) interested in his program, The 8 Steps. Instead, his wife Sheryl (Toni Collette) gets a different phone call - their daughter Olive (Abigail Breslin) has been selected to compete in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant, being held on Sunday all the way in Redondo Beach, California.

Lacking both the funds and the resources for interstate travel, Richard and Sheryl have a hell of a time planning a spontaneous trip to the coast. They're forced to take the beat up old VW, and to pile their extended family in for fun and adventure on the open road. There's angsty teenage son Dwayne (Paul Dano), who has been inspired by Friedrich Nietschze's writing to take a vow of silence. Richard's father (Arkin), the aforementioned heroin snorter, has also served as Olive's coach, so he rightfully insists on coming along. Finally, Sheryl's suicidal brother Frank (Steve Carrell), forbidden by doctor's orders to remain behind by himself, has no other option but to make the trip.

Their adventures, spanning several states in the course of one full day, go from bleak to bleaker. Along with serious discussions of the depression and unrequited love that drove Frank to attempt suicide, the family will confront death, bitter disappointment, humiliation and complete financial ruin during the course of the 700 mile journey to Los Angeles. Each individual cast member does a fairly tremendous job of making these despondant sadsacks and self-described losers compelling and sympathetic. It's a film about a motivational speaker, a pompous and sarcastic Proust scholar, a sullen angry teenager and a dirty old man that gives you no other choice but to root for its subjects as you would action heroes.

Carrell and Kinnear, brothers-in-law with extremely little in common and a relative amount of disdainful hostility towards one another, share a lot of the film's best moments, including some mouthy, sarcastic banter that reminded me of some of Carrell's better work on "The Daily Show." (Collette has a really nice moment in this scene, pretending to chide her brother for mocking her husband while she laughs right along with him. Very natural give-and-take, like you'd get with real siblings.)

And unlike almost any other film comedies of 2006, Little Miss Sunshine gets in some big laughs. They're not cheap laughs either, silly little asides or non-sequiteurs that get a chuckle, but well-crafted dialogue that speaks to the character's intelligence. This family may be a bunch of losers, but they're losers who choose their words carefully and seem to actually read on occasion.

Likewise, Arndt's script smartly reinvents some of the more familiar, even hacky, aspects of the road trip comedy. The VW van eventually develops some unique problems with the clutch and the horn that pay off repeatedly as effective running gags. Even some of the more "wacky" forced sequences, like the beauty pageant that caps the film off, works in spite of itself because the cast has earned so much good will.

In fact, most of my problems with the film boil down to two scenes.

In the first, Frank has a chance encounter at a highway rest stop that I suppose was meant to raise the stakes and present an obstacle to his future happiness. Screenwriting 101 teaches us that you can't make it too easy for your main character to overcome his internal dilemma and transform his life for the better. Frank, in reconnecting with his family and actually cracking a smile during the early stages of the car ride, is in serious danger of healing himself mentally before the end of the movie. So he must re-encounter the pain that triggered his suicide, so that the second act can have some conflict. I bring this up because there is no other reason for this scene to exist than screenwriting formula, and it's also highly improbable. That's a fatal combination - pointless and unlikely.

The second scene to which I object similarly occurs only to advance the predictable machinations of the plot. Dwayne derails the entire trip at the zero hour when he discovers that he is...wait for it...colorblind, and thus unable to fulfill his dream of becoming a test pilot. This development could not feel less authentic to the story. It intrudes out of nowhere merely to introduce the notion that the family might be late in arriving to the pageant.

I'm not saying Arndt shouldn't include these scenes. The road trip formula works for a reason, and I suppose there's no reason to tinker with it unnecessarily. But the best screenwriters learn how to cover their tracks, to insert these kinds of developments artfully, carefully, so that audiences can't tell what's happening until it happens. Little Miss Sunshine hews to the outline so carefully, Faris and Dayton mights as well have included title cards announcing the individual Acts and Scenes. "And now, Scene 14, which is a smashing scene with some lovely acting in which Richard discovers a vital clue."

As it stands, I could see recommending Little Miss Sunshine as a diverting comedy with a terrific, in-your-face performance from Alan Arkin. But a serious consideration as the year's Best Film? Not by a country mile.