Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Enemies Within: My Faves of 2009. Plus: My Long Unseen The Orphan Review.

It varies slightly from year to year, but generally my resolution for the new year is the same- work out a bit more, read a bit more, and attempt to stay creative and productive- get some writing done, maybe some arts and crafts, etc. Aside from a few strolls around the neighborhood, it seems as though I've broken my resolution for 2010 already, and we aren't even past January. For, you see, I had planned/hoped on resurrecting this little blog sometime in late December- by now, this place should be absolutely swimming in movie reviews, musings on culture, and all forms of trivial banter. Consider this too-long belated attempt at a year-end retrospective as both a second chance at keeping my resolution and, more basically, as an exercise to get my lazy ass (and brain!) up and active after over a month filled with little more than playing an alarming amount of online flash games.


We're here for Twister and soda night!

The idea that the call is coming from inside the house, as it were- that the real enemies, the most dangerous corruptions are to be found within as much as from without- seemed to resonate through nearly every film I viewed this year. In some, there was the sense that we've stared into that Nietzschian abyss a little too long; in others, the distrust of any sort of innocence or purity we may have once thought existed. 2009 saw World War Two won by a band of bloodthirsty sociopaths; saw our current military campaigns reduced into a mainlined drug frenzy with its veterans broken, unreachable; saw one Bad law enforcement agent hallucinate the reptile he was becoming... nay, that he had been all along. It's seems not insignificant to me that in the same year that films were revisiting and questioning our history, culture and values, we saw both the arrival of our first Black president and a startling resurgence of militant nationalist, xenophobic and White Power groups and sentiment- progress hampered, as it must always be, by the demons and ugliness of the past. Likewise, our wars and our "enemies" took a backseat to domestic issues, reminding us that there's reason enough in our own character and our own borders for worry. As we enter 2010, it's clear- the call is coming from inside the house.

Distrust and chaos reigned in the films of 2009, so much so that a film like Pierre Morel's Taken felt almost impossibly naive in its sense of certainty. Even there, though, no efforts were made to soften the fact that Liam Neeson's Bryan Mills has become a monster- violent, obsessed, unfeeling- to save his daughter. We're not so different from that mythical, fearful Other, then- hell, we are the Other- that's what these films seemed to say the most to me.

About this list: I didn't keep good enough notes about the films I saw this year and, truth be told, I'm not even sure if I could order five or ten or fifteen films into a "best of" list I'd be happy with. I'm also certain I missed a lot of great films this year. As it is, this list will just be of the movies of 2009 I saw and enjoyed, in no particular order, with only my loose ruminations to defend them.

Inglourious Basterds (d. Quentin Tarantino)
If it isn't his masterpiece- as the film's closing line proclaims- it's at least proof positive that Tarantino remains perhaps the most exciting, most masterful, and most subtly profound auteur working today. For beneath his anything-but-subtle idiosyncrasies and movie-geek stylizations lies a seemingly innate understanding of why we see movies, why we love movies, why movies are today's most important and popular cultural medium. Inglourious Basterds is made up of about 5 or 6 perfectly constructed scenes- the best of them buoyed by a perfect, endlessly fascinating turn by Christoph Waltz- ending in an act of historical revisionism as ideologically difficult and startlingly bold as any scene I can think of. It's probably no coincidence that this scene most resembles the bloody and frenzied finale of Peckinpah's seminal The Wild Bunch- and it's no accident that both films are ultimately reflections of the death of idealism and the truer, stickier nature of our folk heroes. Tarantino charges brazenly into the last war our country had the undeniable moral high ground in and finds that, in war, there really is no such thing as a moral high ground. It's WW2 turned into a spaghetti western and, further, a spaghetti western forcing its audience to face the bloody consequences (never has Tarantino filmed bloodshed so visceral, so... ugly). And it may well just be the consummate film for our past decade of tragedy, warfare, and queasy patriotism.

The Last House on the Left (d. Dennis Iliadis)
It's not as unhinged or unpleasant as Wes Craven's legendary 1972 original- very few films ever will be- but what it lacks in muddy, ugly/beautiful perfection it makes up for in a peculiar sensitivity and dignity in portraying the characters concerned. Take, for instance, the rape of main character Mari Collingwood. Throughout the entire terrifying scene, actress Sara Paxton is shot in such a way to avoid being violated by the camera- and, by extension, the audience. It's grindhouse without being truly exploitative, and violent and vengeful without the usual righteousness and easy answers one has every right to expect. Yes, the semi-infamous final kill acts as something of a catharsis, but it's also an act so calculated and cruel that an uneasiness about this family's resolution remains. It's the thought- here encompassed both by Mari's vengeful parents and also by main thug Krug's abusive relationship to his shy son Justin- that violence and hatred are inherent, inextricable, inevitably passed down by family and experience. It's an honest, powerfully realized remake, and features a wonderfully complex, seething performance by Garrett Dillahunt that somehow bypasses the inevitable comparisons to the legendarily oily presence of David Hess. Yes, it's not the original by any stretch, but it carries enough of its own ideas and confused melancholy to rebuke those who would reject all remakes point unseen.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (d. Werner Herzog)
Werner Herzog and Nicholas Cage are a match made in heaven/madness. He's no Kinski, sure, but as the drug-addled, hunchbacked Lieutenant Terrence McDonagh, Cage gives a gonzo, bravura turn filled with clenched teeth, shaky hands and unchained mania. It's the perfect compliment for Herzog as he once again searches for his Ecstatic Truth, this time in post-Katrina NOLA. Herzog's New Orleans is a place made up of equal parts miracle and corruption, ritual and blackmail, reptiles and lucky crack pipes. In an oeuvre marked by an obsession with nature and man's place in it, it's hard to find a film where Herzog places as much ironical faith in a character as he has here with the addicted, erratic, yet somehow in-control McDonagh (compare- or don't, as Herzog has vocally protested- this Bad Lieutenant with the damaged, impotent turn by Harvey Keitel in Abel Ferrara's 1991 film). Meanwhile, the hallucinated iguanas of the film's most unchained scene provide that same simultaneous foil/counterpart as Stroszek's dancing chicken and Timothy Treadwell's grizzly family. It's as bizarre and obsessed as one could expect, proof that Herzog still has a story to tell and and the will to stare down death to tell it.

The Hurt Locker (d. Kathryn Bigelow), Brothers (d. Jim Sheridan)
War is Hell, and the constant attempts at conveying this reality through cinema has made us numb to it. If War really is Hell, why is it universal throughout human history? Along comes Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and with it, at the risk of sounding hopelessly hyperbolic, a real, believable answer. It's war as a drug, as a rush and, in the end, the only legitimate expression of the Will to Power in an age of comfort and convenience. Sergeant First Class William James (Jeremy Renner, in what has to be his official breakout role) has a family back home, but his real family, his only love, lies in the bombs that threaten his life and give him his only tangible sense of accomplishment (watch as James lights a post-coital cigarette after an encounter with a particularly terrifying trunk full of artillery shells). It's an experience untenable, internal, impossible for the uninitiated to understand- the same, it turns out, as the depiction of war's fallout as seen in Jim Sheridan's Brothers. In a film driven by a few solid performances (including the best turn by Jake Gyllenhaal in my memory), it's Tobey Maguire's Sam Cahill, an American POW left for dead and forced into unspeakable horrors, that startles and proves hardest to reconcile. Cahill's Post-Traumatic Stress, channeled through Maguire's wild-eyed glare, is not romanticized, never relatable, never made comprehensible- its causes can be known, but its true nature will only be known by Sam Cahill and innumerable fellow veterans. I admit a bias towards Brothers and its beautiful scenes shot in my hometown of Los Alamos, New Mexico, enough so that I can forgive the film's sometimes unconvincing scenes and overall melodramatic tone. Regardless, these two films compliment each other perfectly, illustrating the causes and consequences seen and unseen of our current military conflicts.

Adventureland (d. Greg Mottola), Observe & Report (d. Jody Hill)
It's my hypothesis/hope that 2009 marked the beginning of the end of this Frat Pack "irresponsible man-child" comedy that we've seen dominate theaters for the past several years. The box office success of The Hangover aside, 2009 saw a decline in movies in which the central source of humor consisted in Will Ferrell yelling and rolling on the floor, while Judd Apatow, arguably the movement's figurehead, hit rock bottom with the bloated, pointless, nearly unwatchable Funny People (if I was making a worst of list- or at least a list of the movies I couldn't stand- that movie would have topped it). In their place was a string of, shall we say, post-Irresponsible Man-Child comedies, pieces more mature, more willing to deal convincingly with their own consequences... in the end, more melancholy. The beginning of the year saw I Love You, Man, an auto-critique of the blatant homophobia 0f most contemporary comedies and a surprisingly touching look at male bonding and loneliness. Then there was Adventureland and Observe & Report, two works of sadness and longing, featuring some of the most unsettling scenes of the year. Adventureland represents perhaps not so much a step forward for Superbad director Greg Mottola as much a new starting point. If Superbad is a semi-autobiographical work filtered through hormone-driven selective memory, Adventureland finds those same ruminations filtered through a mature, bittersweet realism. It's sensitive and heartbreaking and sweet and perhaps the only work of 80s nostalgia so far that's not embarrassingly obvious or obnoxiously snarky. In Jody Hill's Observe & Report, find the sticky, unpleasant, logical conclusion to the misogyny and immaturity of the Frat Pack, starring Seth Rogen, the movement's breakout star. Hill cites The Taxi Driver as a main influence, and it's fascinating to watch as the film goes through the usual motions only to imbue them with the unbearable weight they've carried all along. It's Knocked Up, only this time it's meant to be disheartening- this film's infamous date rape scene perhaps the most damning indictment of the unthinking, institutionalized misogyny of Apatow's last few films. They didn't make me laugh that much, truth be told, but both these films nearly brought me to tears, and I think that's perhaps worth quite a bit more.

A Perfect Getaway (d. David Twohy)
It's a bit of a minor piece, but A Perfect Getaway still works as a great, enjoyable genre film. It understands the conventions of a thriller, it openly references them, yet it's not glib or overreaching. The main fun, of course, is in watching the film for the first time and getting caught up in the who-done-it intrigue. However, there is still quite a bit to take home, not least of which is an immensely enjoyable performance by the immensely enjoyable Timothy Olyphant. His turn as an Iraq vet who may or may not be the killer we're searching for reflects the feeling found throughout the works of 2009 that rank, status, or a trustworthy past no longer put one above suspicion. Likewise, the film's twist reveal leaves one with the disturbing notion that perhaps the only way to avoid living a life of Sartean Bad Faith and, furthermore, to truly achieve the American Dream is to never acknowledge the past, to always morph and evolve even as it leads to atrocity. It's very difficult to say much else about a film that relies so much on knowing very little about it going in- suffice to say that, minor or not, it was one the best times I had at the theater in 2009.

Star Trek (d. JJ Abrams)
What better way to reboot a sci-fi franchise than to literally reboot its entire galaxy- to create a space in which a new story can be told while still acknowledging and taking direction from its past? Abrams' Star Trek, in following a paradigm-shifting plot, is able to connect directly with past Star Trek films while finding its own direction. As such, Star Trek's appeal both to the diehard and a wide audience feels natural... logical. Reports of the death of Star Trek's humanist core feel utterly false to me- this new entry feels just as committed as any to seeking out new life and civilizations in the hope of peace and unity. True, there is a sense of doubt and of danger, typified both by Chris Pine's young, headstrong Kirk and his apparent foil, Eric Bana's vengeful (there's that word again) Romulan, Nero- both products of an inescapable past (a past inescapable even in time travel) and of failures both personal and collective. It was perhaps the most moving image I saw in movies last year to watch the aged Captain Spock watch from afar as his home planet is destroyed. It's not far off from what we've witnessed in the past years, of course- whether 9/11, Katrina, tsunamis or the recent catasrophe in Haiti- and proves, once again that, beyond the fandom silliness, Star Trek remains elastic enough a franchise to reflect our highest ideals and most popular fears.

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Waaaay back in August, I had planned to write a big three movie summer horror blowout, featuring reviews of The Orphan (see below), The Collector (not so good), and A Perfect Getaway (not so bad- see above, won't you). I got through my review of The Orphan and then failed to write anything else in this blog until now. Because it kinda corresponds to some of the ideas I tried to touch on in my Faves of '09 list, if only slightly, I decided it was worth finally putting that review up... here! Now! So, enjoy.

It's in the very first scene of The Orphan (directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, of 2005's in-such-bad-taste-that-it-tastes-pretty-darn-great House of Wax) that we are transported into the mind of wife, father of two, and recovering alcoholic Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga). It's one of Kate's recurring nightmares, reenacting her stillbirth third pregnancy in a giddily gory, hallucinatory fashion. If, like me, you were somehow able to guess the The Orphan's big twist after the second or third viewing of the trailer, it strikes as an almost too-perfect setup for what promises to be a story that knowingly harkens back to a sort of pre-feminist gothic literary tradition. Home invasion (a theme of almost tantamount importance to nearly every film I've seen this year), infertility and maternal guilt, the inability/callousness of males in understanding uniquely feminine problems (perfectly captured in that first scene when hubbie John [Peter Sarsgaard] hands Kate her bloody carcass of a child in revelry, immediately casting John in a richly deserved light of suspicion for the rest of the film)- all themes richly explored in stories like Charlotte Perkin Gilman's "The Yellow Wall Paper" and Louisa May Alcott's Behind a Mask- incidentally the story from which *SPOILER ALERT* this film's twist no doubt derives, consciously or not- and ones that seem locked and ready to explode across The Orphan's narrative landscape when we learn that perhaps part of Kate and John's decision to adopt arises not only from her stillbirth, but from the fallout of an accident that left their youngest (Arayana Engineer) deaf... one that Kate could have stopped had she not been passed out drunk in the house. This fever dream of guilt and distrust only builds as John is the first to meet loner orphan Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman, giving a performance I'm still kind of in awe of... easily the best aspect of the film) and it's Kate's hand that we first see holding Esther's in a sign of welcome and protection. A connection is being made, dear readers, and is only made stronger as the apparent sexual reawakening of erstwhile frigid Kate seems to bring to life the devil inside Esther. Is Esther a projection of Kate's latent desires and aggressions? It would certainly seem so when the first of Esther's atrocities involves attacking an antagonizing schoolmate (in a most clever, delightfully inappropriate transformation of a children's playground in an Argento-esque setpiece) directly after we see John flirting with a female neighbor. Something is rumbling under the surface here.

Most unfortunate, then, that by its final scenes, The Orphan has devolved into the sort of slasher conventions that are most unbecoming in a film of this kind. By the end, the ambiguities are evoparated, the lines clear cut and simplistic, and, after the big TWIST REVEAL, Esther is blessed with all the powers of Jason Voorhees. A film-long obsession with false-jump-scare, false-POV shots goes from slightly problematic to utterly engulfing in these last few scenes, while a climax that would have been pregnant with troubling meaning had a softer, creepier approach been taken becomes just another disposal of a menacing bogie, complete with, no lie, a macho line stolen directly from the ending of one of The Ring movies. The Orphan stands, then not so much as a disappointment- largely because, as far as I can tell, I was the only person in the whole world who expected anything from it in the first place- as it is a healthy reminder that just a little restraint, ever so little, goes a long way. When The Orphan tends to its garden of psychological hangups and gothic creepiness, it's divine- when it hastily snips its flowers and presents it to us as a sick joke, it's juvenile and more than a little tiresome.

The Orphan (2009, d. Jaume Collet-Serra): 2/4

1 comment:

David said...

Great insight, Alex. I think you hit the nail on the head with Basterds, and now I really want to see Bad Lieutenant. (You wanna bet Barney was looking through a newspaper when picking the name for his new band, just like they did for New Order?)

Loved the post-coital "Hurt Locker" cigarette.

Fuckin Road Trip.