Friday, December 28, 2007

The Top Ten Films of 2007!

This was a tough one to construct. I had hoped to make a top ten list of trashy flicks but, to be honest, I haven't seen that many that were actually released this year. So, I'm doing this thing straight up. Yeah, the top ten films of the year. Things that might actually be up for awards. I know, I know. I'm sorry. If I had done this any other way this would be an incredibly short list. Also, keep in mind that I'm not a paid critic. Therefore, several films still remain unseen by me. For instance, I still haven't seen The Assasination of Jesse James, The Simpsons Movie, Breach, The Condemned, or The Hitcher. If you feel any of these films deserves a place on this list, let me know in the comments. So, without further ado...the best films of 2007.

10. Rescue Dawn
Anyone who thinks Bale's performance as Dieter Dengler in Werner Herzog's mini-masterpiece Rescue Dawn is awful (and I admit, I thought that for a second) should take a look at Herzog's documentary on the same subject called Little Dieter Needs To Fly. This is a fantastic performance given superb support by Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies. I believe Bale's character is too quirky to be given serious consideration for a Best actor Oscar, but Zahn has to be a sure thing for a supporting actor nom. Typical of Herzog, we are presented with lushly oppressive jungle photography. The ending seems supremely corny, but take a look at the documentary. It happened EXACTLY the same way. I was moved by Dieter's unshaken optimism, even after the Viet Cong enlisted the aid of the Manticore at the end. Just kidding, that didn't happen.

9. Zodiac
What's this? Another film on my list that doesn't feature Creatures from the abyss, radioactive mutants, or Mons-turds (trust me, it's coming)? This is a slow burn of a film that may leave some viewers cold and unsatisfied. It's a shame because this just might be David Fincher's best film. Robert Downey jr is terrific as are Jake Gyllenhaal (for once), Mark Ruffalo (as the inspiration for Dirty Harry in a role that is very un-Dirty Harry), Anthony Edwards, and John Carroll Lynch as the lead suspect. The movie doesn't really answer many questions but does seem to take a firm stand on the placement of guilt. This is a 70s movie all the way down to the look, feel, and film stock. Needs to be seen more than once.

8. Sunshine
Finally, a return to smart, serious science fiction that also manages to entertain (sorry Solaris). In the not too distant future, the sun is burning out and, in a last ditch effort, Earth sends a group of scientists into space aboard the ill-named Icarus II in the hopes of reigniting it. What happened to Icarus I? Watch and find out. The plot sounds Armageddon-stupid, but this film is more about what happens during the journey. The cast is first rate with Hiroyuki Sandada, Chris Evans, and Cillian Murphy leading the way. Several set pieces stand out including one where we find out what really happens to man if he's trapped in space without a suit (hint; he doesn't turn inside out). Alex Garland and Danny Boyle (28 Days Later) provide us with one mis-step, involving Freddy Kreuger, but I forgive them.

7. Eastern Promises
Viggo Mortensen and David Cronenberg team up, again, to provide us with a perfect counterpoint to History of Violence. In that film, Viggo was essentially a bad guy pretending to be good. Here, he's a good guy pretending to be bad. In both cases, he is entirely convincing. Cronenberg has moved light years beyond the sterile, vaginal horrors of his early days. Here is a film that is not only moving, but beautiful to look at as well. Naomi Watts and Vincent Cassell are terrific, but it's Armin Mueller-Stahl who blows us away as the seemingly benevolent head of the Russian mob, residing in London. Still, the film belongs to Viggo and Cronenberg, who would be well on his way to winning an Oscar, except that he still insists on shocking the viewer (thankfully). In this picture, we are shown the most brutal throat slashing in mainstream film history, as well as a naked Viggo brawling for his life in a shower.

6. Black Book
Speaking of directors that will likely never win an Academy Award due to their tendency towards the shocking, Paul Verhoeven has crafted a stunningly good Dutch language film set during World War II about a Jewish girl (Carice Van Houten) who pretends to be a Nazi to help the resistance. Of course, this being Verhoeven, we are treated to a scene of Van Houten dying her pubic hair AND later having a large bucket of shit dumped on her. These are two things the Academy voters are not too fond of, in my opinion. Van Houten is the real find here. It's a beautiful performance. Sebastian Koch is terrific as well as the slightly sympathetic, stamp collecting Nazi that she pretends to love, but then sorta falls in love with for real. This is likely the only time a subtitled film will ever appear in this blog, so I suggest you revel in it.

5. The Bourne Ultimatum
I'm just going to come right out and say it. The Bourne films blow the Bond films away. It's that simple. Bond is just kinda silly in comparison. Take a look at Casino Royale for proof. They tried to Bourne Bond up in that one and while it was the best Bond film in recent memory, it still doesn't hold a candle to Bourne. Matt Damon was born to play Bourne. Sorry for that. These films are exceedingly smart. Jason Bourne never does something that isn't absolutely necessary. The films get a little too shaky-cam happy at times, but that simply serves to place the viewer in the midst of the action. The director of the best two films in the series (Supremacy and this one) is Paul Greengrass and he's done more than a bang up job. It's very rare that the ending of an action movie gives me chills. This one did.

4. Superbad
And you guys thought I didn't like comedies! The award for the funniest film of the year goes to Superbad. Michael Cera (Arrested Development) has teenage awkwardness down to a science. Jonah Hill as his best friend Seth isn't funny just because he's large. The funniest character is probably Christopher Mintz-Plasse as the "25 year old organ donor McLovin". Something tells me the actor will fade into obscurity as his lack of any range whatsoever is discovered. If only that had happened to Jon Heder. Basically, it's a night in the life of two High School students trying to get boozed up and laid. Seth Rogan and Bill Hader are hilarious as two cops that have yet to grow up. I won't say it's as good as Dazed & Confused, but I definitely laughed more.

3. 300
Perhaps the greatest crowd-pleaser I saw this year, 300 is a terrifically entertaining underdog story. Much better than recent Underdog stories such as Underdog or Dodgeball: An Underdog Story. Gerard Butler gladiators up as King Leonidas. Let's face it though. We didn't come here for the acting. The visuals are spectacular. 90% of what we see was generated inside of a computer. All of the landscapes, most of the beasts, and I think the majority of those androgynous Persians as well. The battle scenes are incredible, the deaths are brutal, and the testosterone is pumped to ridiculous levels. They tried to offset it a little by including a side plot involving Leonidas's wife, Queen Gorgo, but the ladies weren't buying it. Zach Snyder (Dawn of the Dead) continues to make his name as a visual stylist beyond compare. I can't wait to see what he does next.

2. The Mist
And the award for the film with the most fucked up, nihilistic ending that I loved this year goes to Frank Darabont's The Mist. Based on the Stephen King story of the same name, The Mist is the story of what happens after the military accidentaly opens a gateway to another dimension. It's an interesting, and not particularly original premise. In fact, the idea owes a lot to H.P. Lovecraft. Where the picture excels, however, is depicting the terrors that occur amongst a group of survivors holed up inside a super market. Marcia Gay Harden is terrifying as the sinister religious zealot Mrs. Carmody, while Thomas Jane and Toby Jones (a fantastic performance) believe that this is something other than the "end of times". The gore is abundant and the creatures will have your skin crawling. It's been weeks since I've seen it and I still can't shake that ending.

1. No Country For Old Men
I hesitated before proclaiming this #1 because I knew everyone else would. Then I thought to myself that if it looks like shit, feels like shit, and smells like shit than it must be shit. That's the case here only if we replace "shit" with best picture of the year. Enough has already been said about Bardem's Chigurh, the scariest badman of the last ten years or so. Only Chigurh wouldn't consider himself bad at all. Josh Brolin channels a younger Nick Nolte (was Nolte ever really young?) in his portrayal of Llewelyn Moss, the unfortunate soul that picks up the satchel of money from a drug deal gone horrificaly wrong. My favorite character moment was when Moss, feeling a pang of guilt, decides to bring a jug of water back to the scene of the crime, where a dying mexican was begging for "agua" hours before. The picture is excuciatingly suspenseful at times. At others, darkly funny. Roger Deakins provides beautiful, desolate photography. Tommy Lee Jones, as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, plays a guy he's made a career out of playing, only this time he's even sadder (if that's possible). Carter Burwell's non-score suits the picture perfectly. Every character is note perfect, from Kelly Macdonald as Carla Jean Moss to Garrett Dillahunt as Deputy Wendell. Perhaps my favorite was the great Barry Corbin as Sheriff Bell's mentor, Ellis, who delivers one of the film's stirring monologues; "This country is hard on people...You can't stop what's coming. Ain't all waiting on you. That's vanity." The ending is considered by most as unsatisfying, but I thought it was perfect AND incredibly moving. The stuff of myths. Oh yeah, and I think it was made by the Coen brothers in case that means anything to you.

Minor complaints: No nudity. No aliens.

Coming shortly, my bottom five.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Manticore (2005)

The manticore is a legendary creature of persian (300 villains) origin. Half man, half bear, half pig I believe. Or is it half pig, half man, half bear? Wait, I just looked it up. It's half lion, half man, half dragon, and half scorpion. The Sci-fi channel, in 2005's Manticore, has chosen to address this legend in a scathing treatise on the war in Iraq. Of course, based on this picture, the manticore is actually about 75% lion, 20 % dragon, and 5 % scorpion or actually, what I might consider to be stingray. So, not quite half and half and half. Thankfully, they didn't even attempt the "man" part, even though it's in the fucking title. That would have looked even more ridiculous. Believe me, this thing didn't need any more help in that department.

The first thing I noticed was "wow, I know this scene." What Manticore has managed to do, brilliantly I might add, is rip off several other far superior movies. Like most Sci-fi originals, there is a galling bankruptcy of imagination. Here's the formula. Take a creature (either mythological or genetically altered), come up with a basic plot involving a group of characters isolated from the rest of society, rip off scenes from classic movies within the genre, mix in a few C-list (and below) actors, and Voila! You've made yourself a Sci-fi original. Manticore is a part of the "essential" collection, so I can only imagine what crap is considered non-essential. God, this movie stinks

Here's the basic plot. We're a few years into the debacle known as the war in Iraq. Apparently, the terrorists must think we're winning the war because they wake up a manticore to help fight their battle. However, the manticore just holes up in an isolated town called Al Kumar and feeds on the villagers instead. That's ok, they can just blame it on the United States later. For some reason, an american journalist for GNN named Ashley Pierce, played terribly by Chase Masterson (Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), and her cameraman come to this town because they heard some WMDs might be hidden there. What they find instead is a "living, breathing WMD". The United States Army stationed in the area, under the command of Major Spense (Jeff Fahey from Body Parts and Planet Terror), sends in a squad of soldiers led by Seargent Baxter (I swear it's George Lopez) and Corporal Kinky played by Heather Donohue (she was in Blair Witch Project, not The Bare Wench Project) to retrieve Pierce. I guess these are the C-listers. Actually, Fahey is more of a B- lister. No one else is really worth mentioning. So, the soldiers get to the town and are immediately under attack from the manticore. Can they hold out until support arrives? Oh, also one of the terrorists is in the town as well (played by Faran Tahir and looking like Mola Ram). There's also an Iraqi boy, with a heart of Saddam's missing bullion, to show us that not all Iraqi's want to blow us up.

The initial scene, the one where the beast is unleashed, is stolen directly from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom AND Conan the Destroyer. I guess the filmmakers need to be given credit for that small coup. The slaughter that follows, in this scene, is not quite as good as Conan, however. The red stuff flies certainly, but we don't get to see much detail. Wisely, the creature is shown sparingly. Unwisely, this was not the case later on. Typical of Sci-fi, they employed Playstation 2 CGI. My favorite line came in this opening scene when Mola Ram says "for 2,000 years they have slept, waiting paitently to be called to rid us of our enemies". George Bush? If you're listening, I think it's time we left Iraq. Do you really want to take the chance that terrorists have access to such a weapon?

Baxter's squad is introduced to us during a stone fight that escalates into a firefight. Think Saving Private Ryan meets Brotherhood of the Wolf, which in turn, says "hi" to The A-Team. It didn't really work. They're a rag tag bunch of loveable guys though that truly enjoy each others company. Baxter is under the impression that their job is to help these people (the Iraqis), but his commanding officer (Fahey) has other ideas. A potential conflict that isn't really dealt with once there is a monster to deal with.

Once the squad reaches Al Kumar everything goes to shit, including the movie. The jokester of the bunch, Mickey is torn to shreds because he's been labeled "the boy who cried manticore". The Sarge radioes in that they "are under attack from an unknown entity that can't be categorized". There's an attempted helicopter rescue that shamelessy lifts the attempted rescue scene verbatim from Aliens, a film I'm pretty sure is infinitely superior. The guy named Busey (not to be confused with Gary or Jake) I believe is taken out during the "spectacular" crash. One soldier tapes a goodbye message to his wife, so we can only guess what happens to him seconds later. Yeah, he gets impaled by manticore's barbed tale. One thing struck me as odd though. Apparently, there was no medic in this squad or perhaps he was killed early on and I didn't notice. As one soldier lies dying, All Baxter can do is tell him to "hang in there"? No morphine, no gauze, no impromptu surgery. This film might be the greatest deterrent to military service that I have ever seen.

This particular picture ends, as they all do,
with the calling in of a strategic air strike. Is that going to destroy the manticore?

Are you kidding? Look at that thing! Clearly, the only way to defeat it is to rip off The Clash of the Titans and use a mirror. Then, the filmmakers can rape The Terminator and have it's glowing red eyes fade to black. By the way, the beast looked exactly like the image above, except it had the head of a lion and the wings of a dragon. Other than that, same thing.

If you're a Jeff Fahey fan, as I am, don't bother with this one unless you're a completist. I think he's halfway through his 50 picture deal with the Sci-fi channel, a contract he must be regretting. Why else would half his roles consist of throwaway parts filmed in the span of an hour? A quick word on the setting. This was apparently filmed in Bulgaria, a place I will not soon be visiting because it looks exactly like Iraq. A quicker note on Heather Donahue. Porn. It's in your future. How many times have I used that line before?

Friday, December 7, 2007

A new voice??

You may have noticed that I haven't been quite as prolific over the last month and a half. Basically, October burned me out. Beowulf 1999 has helped to rejuvenate me somewhat. I actually abstained from alcohol and took notes during that one. Anyway, I've been thinking about recruiting another reviewer for a while. There has always ONLY been one person that I've had in mind. However, since Roger Ebert won't even respond to my emails, I had to settle for Dan (above, left). He's a guy with similar tastes in trashy flix, but perhaps a slightly different style and point of view. The picture above is from last years Christmas party. As you can see, Rawhead Rex crashed the shit out of it. The hope here is that Dan will push me to constantly improve and not be so god damned lazy. If his writing serves to make me look bad in comparison, then he'll be booted from the blog by January.

So, look for a Dan review. It could be this weekend. It could be next week. It could be never. At the very least, I got another posting out of it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Beowulf (1999)

Christopher Lambert (Highlander) stars in this, the definitive interpretation of the Beowulf story. Why did Zemekis and company even attempt to top this one? Don't bother seeing his version, the one currently making decent coin at the box office. Even in 3D, it's kind of a joke in comparison. Beowulf 1999 even tops the Gerard Butler (300) edition, Beowulf & Grendel. What a travesty that piece of shit was. Fuck, Grendel wasn't even a monster. He was just some hairy pissed off dude with a thyroid problem. Don't even talk to me about The 13th Warrior, an abomination against celluloid. Not only could they not spell Beowulf's name right (Buliwyf??? What the fuck?), but they forgot to even include Grendel in the story. Puh-lease. Anonymous was surely rolling over in his grave after that came out. Let's be frank here, people. I'll save you a lot of time. This picture blows the original epic poem out of the water as well. Kids, I'm talking to you. When your teacher assigns you to read the poem in class, just skip it. Watch this instead. If you're like me, it might take a couple days of slogging to get through the poem which, to the best of my knowledge, was longer than a page and had a terrible rhyme scheme. Beowulf 1999 is the solution to your problem. It clocks in at a crisp 87 minutes. That's even better than the Cliffs notes. You can thank me after you score an A on the quiz.

Beowulf 1999, unlike those other crap festivals I mentioned, takes place in the future (the 5th-6th centuries A.D. can go fuck themselves too). Not just any future, mind you, but a post apocalyptic one. Post apocalypse > ancient fucking times. Therefore, better. How do we know this takes place in the post apocalyptic future? Besides the techno beat pulsating during the battle scenes, the movie features a few characters with eye glasses (which featured quite prominently in Mel Gibson's post apocalyptic tome, Beyond Thunderdome). A castle, right out of an M.C. Escher nightmare, stands in for that rinky dinky beer hall that Hrothgar called home in those other versions. This castle features moving parts which are often engulfed in fire. The castle even has it's own god damned public address system, a vast improvement over screaming and yelling that was all too common in the days of yore.

Christopher Lambert plays the titular character in, what some might call, a wooden performance. His tone of voice never changes as he talks about the "darkness" that pursues him wherever he goes. I won't go there. It's a brilliant performance. Equipped with crossbows and a multitude of sharpened gadgets, Lambert's Beowulf is the James Bond of post apocalyptic barbarians. Upon being called an "idiot" for coming to the curs-ed keep, Beowulf responds "only an idiot WOULD come to this damned place....unless he was already damned". So fucking deep, I began developing a man crush.

Hrothgar is played most ably by Oliver Cotton (Christopher Columbus: The Discovery) the man who couldn't, for the life of him, get Grendel to fight him because he fucked Grendel's mother....and well, I won't spoil the BIG revelation. You'll just have to watch for yourself. I'm trusting you NOT to read the poem. This is so much better. Hrothgar is even provided a lovely daughter, named Kyra, played by Rhona Mitra (of Party of Five fame). Gotz Otto plays Roland, Hrothgar's #1 swordsman/kung fu master. His unrequited love for Kyra provides some tension, not that it was needed (so much already!) between Roland and Beowulf, whom Kyra clearly pines for. These are the main roles, but what really puts this picture over the top are the supporting ones. Brent Jefferson Lowe (The Jacksons: An American Dream) plays Will, hip hop comic relief, assistant (soon to be promoted?) and nephew to the weapon's master (Charles Robinson from Night fucking Court!). After Robinson is given a tragic death, where he scrambles blindly around on the floor after Grendel knocks off his glasses only to have the beast eviscerate the shit out of him, Will is finally given his well deserved promotion. Will has his doubts about his abilities but is comforted by Beowulf, who tells him "you don't have to be good ALL the time. Once should suffice" or something like that, I'm paraphrasing. The movies sheer brilliance continues to cloud my thoughts.

Do I need to get into the plot? Ok, Grendel is a monster. Every night he makes his way into the castle and kills as many of Hrothgar's men as monsterly possible before sun-up. By the time Beowulf arrives, there are forty men left. Why does Grendel do this? Where did he come from? Why couldn't Hrothgar just keep it in his fucking pants?? To find the answers, netflix this immediately OR pick it up in the "$5 and under" DVD section at your local video store. It saddens me greatly that this picture isn't secured firmly in the "priceless" DVD section, a price I would most assuredly pay. So misunderstood.

I sense another question from my captive audience. You want to know why Hrothgar and his men didn't just leave the castle and run? Because, inexplicably (yes, sometimes even the best movies lack an explanation for everything. It's a little thing called subtlety) an army has surrounded the accursed place. They kill anyone that flees. They're not working with Grendel, so I think their motive is purely one of religion. Occasionaly, the director, Graham Baker (The Omen III) cuts back to this band of barbarous zealots where we get to witness them looking upon Hrothgar's keep through a scope of some sort (post apocalyptic) and commenting on the action with lines such as "my GOD look at the size of that thing!" Graham Baker is a brilliant, brilliant director. I can only assume that he died, however, because this was his final film.

Of course, you can't have a film about Beowulf without having a Grendel (Fuck you 13th Warrior!). And this one has its Grendel and then some. Again, a vast improvement over every other interpretation because this guy is a fucking predator. When I say "predator", I don't simply mean he's an animal that hunts or kills other animals, although he kind of is that. No, he's an alien that hunts human prey (and sometimes aliens) and is equipped with a cloaking device. He didn't use that laser-spear thing in this one, since I guess it wouldn't have been fair. It now becomes pretty clear that the predator in Predator was sent back in time to waste Arnold Schwartzenegger (also, Hercules in New York) who is most obviously an ancestor of Christopher Lambert's Beowulf. It's a little tough to pick up on and since most of you would miss this connection, I'm here to, well, connect it for you. Of course, I was a little shocked to learn that Grendel's mom IS Pamela Anderson (played here by future oscar winner and past Playboy Playmate, Layla Roberts). She has a great scene with Roland, near the climax, with some terrific dialogue that I won't recount for you now. The scene slowly builds as she moves closer to poor Roland and the techno music pulsates gently. I half expected it to end with a pop shot all over her pretty face.

Unfortunately, all great things must come to an end and this is MOST certainly a great thing. Wisely, Baker, in constructing his magnum opus, trimmed off all the horrible fat from the poem. Beowulf is a bit more conflicted here, as he is the son of Baal, "lord of lies". Therefore, duh, he has to always be fighting evil, lest he become that which he fights. All that nonsense about a dragon was trimmed as well, though, let's face it. If they left the dragon in, Beowulf probably would have been fighting a tank with a blow torch attached to it or something. Actually, that would be kind of cool. I'm sure they filmed it, but the studio made them take it out. We need the estate of Graham Baker to prepare his "final" definitive cut, although how does one improve on perfection? The thing that makes this one far superior, the icing on the cake, if you will, is that Beowulf is not a slave when it comes to beautiful women. Oh, Grendel's mom is mighty tempting, especially when trying to convince Beowulf that he'd like the feel of "hot blood pumping down his throat". Wait a minute? Did she just question his sexuality? Anywhoo, then she turns into a giant crab-thing and the lucky viewer is treated to Baker's piece de resistance. Oh, glory, thy name is Beowulf 1999.

Or, maybe it sucked, and in actuality, I love all the other versions? I don't know, can't remember.