Thursday, November 25, 2010


Again, into history, goes another year of mortal media shenanigans and cinematic peaks and valleys. For the previous 11 months I have attempted my usual routine of guiding reader attention toward certain things in the arena of film art that I humbly feel merit significant audience expansion. Invariably, along the way, a great many candidates must fall by the wayside, as I am only allotted so much space in which to gleefully rant away.
Here then are some of the honorable mentions I have witnessed in passing and even some brief verbal spite aimed at a few films that, I dare say, y'all should steer well clear of.
Not exactly a 'Best Of', nor a 'Worst Of' compiling, more accurately I deem it a 'Rest Of' round up of notable tids and bits from across the span of this casually fading thing we all will come to reflect back upon as 2010.
1. In Criterion We Trust.
Surely, this is not the first time someone has pointed extensive, wordy praise in the direction of the collector friendly home video institution, The Criterion Collection (I know I've shucked my share of kudos in its favor), so it should stand as a given that several titles from their ever impressive catalog would make the cut here. Most substantially, the company decided to grace two paramount early works by one Terry Zwigoff (the Wisconsin born, geek-chic anti-hero later to stand behind 'Ghost World' and 'Bad Santa' and the increased commercial acceptability both films would fleetingly allot).
The pictures (first 'Louie Bluie' then 'Crumb') stand as testament to Zwigoff's painstakingly curious affinity for outsider art and, to an even higher extent, those who stand responsible for it. Now, 'Louie Bluie' served as the break in point in regards to Zwigoff's directorial formulation. The project grew out of his intense love of old record collecting (mostly with a lean to obscurities from the dawn of the 20th Century) and many of the oft-unappreciated talents behind them. Zwigoff scraped meager fundage together to attempt an independent cinematic study piece based around one Howard Armstrong, a Tennessee based 'Country-Blues' tunesmith who's long standing nickname doubled as a handy title. It is within this scrappy little hour long experiment that we are given the basic strengths (attention to character ticks, networking out to various intriguing secondary persons to gain further insight into the main subject) that would mature enough to enable Zwigoff to achieve near masterpiece status with his sophomore effort.

'Crumb' sets out to investigate the creative engine behind Robert Crumb, the epic scale cult phenom most immediately recognizable as the father of Fritz the Cat and a fair collection of hippie era album covers (think Greatful Dead='Keep On Truckin''). This gaunt, thick speckled human anomaly survives under the constant prod of Terry Zwigoff's cinematic microscope by way of his own nervous brand of on screen charm, his genuinely innocuous sexual proclivities, copious samplings of his artistic output (well representing the span of his substantial career) and, not of least importance, the input of his remarkably bent male siblings, Charles and Max. It is by witnessing these two that any viewer will be able to surmise the specific role that Robert's pursuit of his bent artistic instincts would have in maintaining a relative semblance of sanity and a great measure of success throughout his life. Both the brothers are legitimately batshit in their own curious way, with Charles arguably stealing chunks of the show as he nervously banters with Robert on the subject of their childhood ups and (mostly) downs while ever so barely maintaining his fractional grasp on sanity.
'Crumb' serves as both a reminder of the importance of nurturing one's creative energy as well as the benefits to be reaped by not selling it short. Robert Crumb remains steadfast in his aversion to common place, pop culture dictated behavioral traits and can even be seen intentionally bastardizing such mannerisms as satire in his drawings. The film triumphs as a study of a variant of the so-called 'human condition' in that it fully embraces the potential of a nominal persona in a rampantly redundant society. What the Criterion folks have done with this critically lauded art house darling is to retro fit it in one of their customary, director supervised transfers that work to present the film as close to perfect as it can feasibly get . Next, they've fattened their new reissue (spine # 533) with a pair of director commentaries (one alongside Roger Ebert, from 2006, before that poor sap lost his voice to cancer) and a pile of raw outtakes and still shots. An accompanying booklet has the usual written banter (this time it's author Jonathan Rosenbaum) and a mini gallery collecting together art by all three Crumb brothers as well as Robert's son Jesse. As per usual with Criterion, the film has never looked nor sounded better (the same goes for 'Louie Bluie', though, in truth, this was the first time I'd ever even seen it.) and they show little sign of slowing down as they enhance their catalog with fine selections from both the current and historic factions of the cinematic realm. Already at large are the likes of 'Hunger', British helmer Steve McQueen's alternately beautiful and unflinching portrait of Bobby Sands and his monumental role in the 1981 Irish hunger strike that would lead to his martyrdom and Austrian Götz Spielmann's engrossing Revanche, which twists together the fates of a petty criminal, his hooker girlfriend and an emotionally taxed policeman in unexpected fashion. On the horizon are such fetching titles as Terrance Malick's return from self exile war opus 'The Thin Red Line', Stanley Kubrick's pre-Spartacus Kirk Douglas vehicle, 'Paths of Glory' and the, allegedly, really warped Japanese head trip horror fable 'House'.
The company is also responsible (for better or otherwise) for the home video birth of Lars Von Trier's latest challenge to all senses, 'Antichrist'. This time out, Von Trier was allegedly wrestling with a severe bout of depression as he set about delving into the turmoil of how a married couple must contend with the abrupt death of their infant child (he fell out of a window while they were getting frisky, as realized-penetration shot and all-as what oddly looks like some high gloss perfume ad). The pair (another Wisconsonite-William DeFoe and some french chick who looks even more malnourished than he does) abscond themselves to the woods to cope and instead find themselves facing persistent demons at seemingly every turn. Spooky sounds, mutant animals and incredibly brutalized genitalia flesh out the bulk of this less than spirited romp with nature. Bookended by some rather sumptuous black and white imagery, but the major gut of this thing is a one shot deal, if at all. For Von Trier die hards only.
To track down any of the above films,
2. Vengeance, How I Love Thee.
As of this point in my recent cinematic experience, I have yet to be quite as struck by the sheer mastery of the medium as I am when I submit to the works of the mighty Park Chan-wook. Most recently, he has managed to reconfigure the oft-beaten path of the vampire scenario into a bent epic of salvation in spite of damnation called 'Thirst'. I covered that gem way back in February, so I will now pay passing respect to the year's best 'box set', Palisades/Tartan's 8-Disc packaging of Chan-wook's magnificent Vengeance Trilogy.
Said set is comprised of all three, thematically connected Park masterworks. 'Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance' is the lead off film, covering the unforeseen dramatics that ensue once a foolhardy fellow kidnaps the young offspring of a high ranking corporate type in order to derive a solid ransom to help save his dying sister. Once a swift succession of events are set in motion, leading to the tragic death of the little girl, the once orderly, high dollar pops turns to a path to self imposed justice. Perhaps, the most famous of the three pictures, 'Old Boy' gives up the results of a clueless man imprisoned 15 long years without reason and then suddenly set free with nothing but savage retaliation on his broken mind. 'Lady Vengeance' completes the set, this time with a female as the falsely convicted protagonist who finds herself on an elaborate payback campaign of her own. With this immaculate trio, Park Chan-wook strives to detail just how equally devastating an impact the easily chosen path of revenge can have on those who have already suffered indelibly, vengeance often proves to be but an extension of their torment.
Park crafts each chapter with fine, articulate balance of brutal intensity and graceful cinematic poetry. Each film is stacked with an even share of striking images, precise performances and inventive plotting that make for so much more than the standard issue 'right the wrong' outline. No cut rate bullshit here people, Park Chan-wook is among the finest currently practicing in the art of film. This fat box set comes full of legit evidence as all three phenomenal films come enhanced with commentaries, making of stuffs, interviews, deleted footage, press kits and (for 'Old Boy') even a 3 hour video diary (!). 'Lady Vengeance' even boasts of an alternate, 'Fade to White' version that, well, ends as the title dictates. Truly essential stuff for film lovers, fan boys and Asian cinema obsessives alike.

3. The Concept Heard 'round the World.
The Human Centipede (First Sequence)
Ok, take two ditsy American chicks, a flat tire in the German countryside, a remote locale and a gaunt, menacing doctor (who once maintained a career separating conjoined twins) and what do you have? Said females linked ass-to-mouth with some, random Japanese fellow to form 'The Human Centipede' of course. A Dutch director named Tom Six came up with the idea, so of course he had to bring it to the screen to share with the rest of us. Ultimately, it's the concept that carries the weight of what is, otherwise, just a few beats above average low grade, shock horror. Sure, there's the main visual of the centipede itself, as well as a few choice 'yuck! moments scattered about, but it all proves a tad mundane when one takes into consideration the expectations a person's mind sets in motion once such a high/low scenario is presented. Still worth a cheap rental, just to say you saw it.

A sequel (Second Sequence) is slated for next year, lucky us.
4. When the 'Good Guys' Do Less Than Good. (filmmakers I dig making films I do not)
There has arisen a moderate trend toward the negative in that several key filmmakers that I have long followed and greatly admired have begun to embrace projects of late that (at least within my humble perspective) fall well outside the perimeters of their standards. Now, as I have yet to catch David Fincher's 'The Social Network', I must, in all fairness, leave it well enough alone (I'm confident it is expertly realized and all, but a Facebook movie from the guy who did the great 'Zodiac'?). Elsewhere though, someone tell me why Edgar Wright, the man behind two of the freshest, genre blending hybrids of recent years ('Shaun of the Dead' and 'Hot Fuzz') would invest an obvious high level of blood, sweat and artistic energy into whatever the hell you'd call 'Scott Pilgrim vs the World'? I know it all hails from some cherished comic and blah, blah, blah and that go-to kids around the world will tell you it speaks to this generation's blah, blah, blah and so on and total bullshit. This does not address the simple fact that a whole lotta money, time and considerable union cash burning was utilized to dress up a simpleton story involving a less than geek level douche bag who finds himself torn between two unrealistically attractive chicks and the stock 'slackers' in his insufferable garage band. Oh, and the brother of that one time 'Home Alone' kid plays the gay roommate as a slightly exaggerated fag stereotype, so like, OMG! how topical. However, if you have a case of extreme pop-culture based, channel surfing, blah, blah, blah disorder, this movie will make you orgasm your retarded self to death, now get to it.
Next victim.
Can somebody please help me understand how the once incredibly inventive, hyper stylistic one of a kind man behind such seminal Italian giallo epics as 'The Bird With The Crystal Plumage' and 'Cat O' Nine Tails' can fall flat on his face by making a terribly mundane and lazy piece of emptiness called 'Giallo'? Dario Argento is not likely a filmmaker apt to please all tastes, even in a fan fanatic arena such as horror, but few can refute the distinction of his directorial voice, very much the highest example of style over substance, but what an often breathless style it can be. True, the finished film was re-cut by the producers and even the man himself disowns it, not to mention the disdain of lead actor Adrien Brody, who claims he was never fully paid! But this sad, uninspired mess could barely pass muster on some late night cable channel slot. It's just lacking everything, decent writing, plotting, set pieces, acting, everything. The story, something about a woman (Emmanuelle Seigner) who teams with a jaded cop (Brody) to find her missing sister whom may have become the latest victim of some deformed serial killer type, is never advanced far beyond the type of stale approach one might find on any number of those silly, major network crime shows with the initials in the title NCSISCSI or something (does it make a difference in the end?).Lots of chases, police procedural cliches and cigarette smoking fills the running time out. Not my idea of a good time, or a real Argento movie.
5. Good For Them Boys.
We wrap this whole endtime retrospective with a nod toward the future (or so I hope), at least in part, of this wonderful and troublesome thing we like to call the movie business. As much bitching and groaning as one might glean from this column of mine, I would hope they can also, on polite occasion, uncover a morsel or two that will serve to give them hope that there are, indeed, fimmakers and films out there that do thrive as worthy opposition to the bloated mental bankruptcy that helps keep bad comedians and remake happy producers off the unemployment line.
A man named Adan Green hit a two-fold punch this year as he managed to sneak back to back works under the commercial radar yet into respectable theatrical bookings for brief stab at the box office. His scheme didn't return much beyond pigeon scrapings in terms of absolute dollar, but both the decent 'Frozen' and the proudly moronic bloodbath 'Hatchet II' got one metaphoric foot in the door, 'Hatchet II' even managed to do so without bowing to the constraints of an MPAA rating.
Elsewhere, Chad Ferran bounced forward from a spate of earnest but overly amateurish time wasters ('The Ghouls', 'Easter Bunny Kill! Kill!') to hammer out a tight and surprising little head scratcher by the name of 'Someone's Knocking At The Door' a heady amalgamation of grind house sleaze, mind bending plot distortion, gleeful sexual depravity and more than a touch of quality, widescreen carnage. No lie, as much as I shrugged at his early work, this loving embrace of twisted psychosis and rubber reality narrative rape works on just about all levels. don't even worry what it's supposed to be 'about', seek it out and drink heavily while lots of strange shit unfolds before you.
Finally, two more that I'm not sure I can either pan or recommend in all legitimacy.
'Trash Humpers' is probably the next logical step for the guy who made arguably one of the defining indie geek shows of all time with 'Gummo'. Yet how many people will honestly make it through nearly an hour and a half of derelicts in old age masks raping inanimate objects and fondling fat whores while uttering really obnoxious non-dialog, all shot on sub-par VHS tape? Hell, I bought it. What does that say about me?
Never mind.
'Best Worst Movie' If ever a movie were non-deserving of such a badge of honor, it would be 'Troll 2', the cast off non-sequel that this movie attempts to rationalize as worthy of one of the most inane and pointless cult followings ever delusionaly fabricated. Cast and crew members are unearthed and pressed to recollect their part in some no-budget filmmaking that took place in rural Utah two decades prior. Main man George Hardy, a meat head Alabama dentist with a perma-grin played the dad in the movie (his on screen son, Micheal Stephenson, serves as director of this full length homage) and acts as tireless tour guide for much of what's seen here. There are 'Troll 2' parties and convention appearances and even a video game to help emphasize the 'so bad it's good' legacy. Still, try as I might, I cannot see 'Troll 2' as anything more than what it originally was, a cheap and instantly forgettable knock off of a much better Charles Band movie that is actually far more in need of a nerdtastic revival (c'mon, it's got Sonny Bono mutating into a big, uh, cabbage sack, or something).
Treasure for some, trash to others I guess.
Ok, that went on too long, but don't expect an apology.