This is my movie & TV diary for 2011…
I LOVE YOU, PHILLIP MORRIS
A movie about a gay con artist who finds true love while in prison, and tries to build a life for his boyfriend by using the only real skill he has: Deception. Jim Carrey and Ewan Macgregor get such a visible kick out of playing lovers that it becomes pure fun to watch them, and co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa handle their film’s hairpin turns in tone brilliantly. Never has a movie so sensitive to the emotional needs of its gay characters managed to make so many dick jokes.
VERY BAD THINGS
When a Vegas bachelor party results in a fatal misadventure for the stripper, the other revelers decide to cover her death up, this being wedding week and all. Their decision leads (where else?) to other bodies, other cover-ups, and a mysteriously diminishing wedding party. If only it led to the kind of fucked-up payoffs that first-time writer/director Peter Berg is reaching for here. He fails to balance the humor and the violence, and his characters are neither interesting enough to be likeable, or unlikeable enough to be interesting. Sprinkle logic jumps and brazen misogyny into the mix, and you’ve got a pretty unforgivable film.
A SINGLE MAN
“A Single Man” is based on Christopher Isherwood’s novel about a middle-aged professor who loses his partner in a car accident, but can’t really tell anyone about it, since he’s mired in the heterosexual poise of suburbia. So he opts for suicide, and the film follows the events of his meticulously-planned final day. The romantic shades of Abel Korzeniowski’s score help lift what might have been an unbearably sad film out of the gloom, though not very far out–do not watch this movie if you want to smile anytime soon.
A documentary about portrait artist Alice Neel, whose work was largely ignored during her lifetime, but wound up being celebrated by critics and feminists alike late in her life. It’s not only about her place in the broader context of painting, it’s about the artist as a worker and a Mom. Hence, financial and domestic realities that are barely touched upon in similar films are a big part of the story, and the director doesn’t shy away from his grandmother’s sometimes controversial persona, or the conflicted feelings her children have about their upbringing. Most arts documentaries are love letters, this one is more like…well, a documentary.
“Le Samourai” is one of the purest films you’ll ever see, with a haunting Alain Deleon performance that will live on in your mind and, I dunno, make you want to be cooler. The majority of his scenes are devoid of dialogue, and his face is similarly devoid of expression, so that he creates a character almost wholly through his hypnotic economy of movement. Melville supports the fascination with long sequences that play like anatomy lessons: This is how I steal a car, this is how I assassinate somebody, etc. Together they beam this movie into your subconscious, and it will linger there forever.
While Argento’s other movies rely on story structures that are familiar to horror fans, most notably the “killer thriller” template of the giallo, “Inferno” progresses more like a dream, with elements that adhere to the logic of its specific images–it may be the first horror film that could be more accurately reviewed by Karl Jung than Roger Ebert. If watched for story, it’s all over the place. If enjoyed for atmosphere and resonance it’s absolutely haunting, like visiting an actual place.
THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE
I’m re-watching all my Argento. What can I say? His screenplays lack for logic, his characters are paper-thin, his twist endings are inane…but there’s something about the sleek world he creates, particularly in his “gialli”, that absolutely catches hold of your brain, and reminds you why this guy is a household name among horror fans. I particularly love the way he brings cities to life, with all their ambience and danger, the way his camera prowls around their streets and interiors and, in this particular film, the way Ennio Morricone’s creepy score underlines all of these qualities with his breathy “mannequin madrigal” score.
BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING
I’ve wanted to see this famous Otto Preminger film for years and years, ever since I heard the story described in TV Guide: A woman’s daughter goes missing on her first day at a new school, and when Mom attempts to enlist help finding her, nobody remembers having seen the girl in the first place. Even the detective tracking her down openly harbors doubts that she exists. With an amazing performance by the chameleon-like Lawrence Olivier as the detective, and a completely whacked performance by Keir Dullea as the protagonist’s overprotective brother, this film starts ordinarily enough, then gradually turns up the crazyometer, until you feel your sanity balloon floating way past easy reach.
There are numerous problems with “Sherlock Holmes”, all of which were outweighed, for me, by the hilariously bitchy relationship between Holmes and Watson, and the fact that I could watch time-remapped footage all day long. The plot relies heavily on a hint of the supernatural to blow the cobwebs off, a technique which makes the whole thing weirdly reminiscent of “Young Sherlock Holmes”—though it’s an appropriate choice for a Doyle adaptation, given his penchant for the same thing. It’s also nice to see Mr. Crowley finally getting the cinematic villain stand-in he deserves.
WE LIVE IN PUBLIC
Ondi Timoner’s documentary is about Josh Harris, a millionaire who uses his dot-com spoils to fund fascinating/horrifying social experiments–one where a hundred people live in an underground hotel with nothing to watch on television but each other, and another where his relationship with his girlfriend is tracked and streamed over the web. If it were fiction, I’d say it was too obviously satirical. That it’s real makes my jaw unhinge and fall off my face. I saw it twice.
Filmed at actual New York locations, “Naked City” represents an early stage in the development of the police procedural, so it’s almost inevitable that its quest to bring various gritty truths home to Hollywood would hit unintentionally humorous notes. But if you can look past the liberal amounts of hokum, the darker corners of the story still disturb–and speaking of looking, the cinematography is stunning. It’s the one aspect of filmmaking that has clearly regressed, rather than developed, since this was made.
THE CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD
Lucio Fulci’s films scare me like I’m a kid, no doubt because they seem to have been scripted by a kid, the horror equivalent of “Axe Cop”. “City of the Living Dead” in particular is loaded with hilarious logic jumps, absurd sound effects (there are an awful lot of tropical birds in Fulci’s Massachusetts), and several actors whose “characters” are little more than concerned expressions. In fact, if we’re taking this one at face value, it makes “Suspiria” look like “The Lives of Others”. Yet somehow, in the best Fulci films (and this is one of them) all the things that don’t make sense also contribute to the film’s eerie dream logic. There is a feeling that nobody in a Fulci film is ever truly safe, and the fact that his characters’ gory ends are so fake somehow makes them even scarier, like the actors are turning into wax dummies before being eviscerated. He builds a world of dread-soaked terror at the intersection of scary and stupid.
Abandon all hope, ye who enter a screening of “Birdemic”. It’s not to say there aren’t many laughs to be had here, but as bad movies go, “Birdemic” crosses the line from hilariously cheesy to truly dreadful several times. Worst of all, it earnestly seeks to say something important, which makes many of its flaws seem a little sad. The plot: A young model’s courtship with her long-lost High School classmate is cut short by an attack of killer eagles. Eagles that look and behave much like the creatures in 1990’s arcade shooters, in part because they are animated using the technology from those games. SFX gaffes aside, director Phi Nguyen has many other “negative talents” on display here, the most jaw-dropping of which is his knack for letting unintentionally hilarious lulls in action sneak into the proceedings. Take the opening credits, where the inane theme music loops while the protagonist drives, and drives, and drives, or the final moment of the film, where the survivors watch birds fly away for what feels like the rest of your life. “I wonder why they stopped attacking?” See it if you can, just be advised, this is the kind of bad movie you watch with a finger on the fast-forward button—not even its awfulness can save you from its awfulness.
NICHOLAS & ALEXANDRA
William Goldman’s screenplay has some heavy lifting to do, but it does a good job illuminating the forces at work in Imperial Russia’s twilight years, and characterizing the revolution’s major players–though this would have been a better choice for a miniseries than a film project, truth be told. The cast is unbelievable: Ian Holm, Brian Cox, Lawrence Olivier, and wait a minute…is that “Dr. Who”’s Tom Baker as Rasputin? Don’t laugh folks, the approach to the character he and Goldman undertake is a wonder to behold, brilliantly fusing the conflicting qualities of the Starets in a way I’ve never seen. You somehow understand how this man could be an inspirational healer and a scoundrel all at once.
“Trash Humpers” patches parking lots, service roads and other unplaces into a distinct visual world, populates that world with people you wouldn’t want to meet, and then strands you there. Don’t let the title fool you—this film really is about people who hump trash. Three of them, in phony geriatric makeup and casual clothes, whose lives are a plotless drinking, killing, and garbage-violating spree through bypassed Tennessee. Edited on two VCRs, it’s meant to resemble the kind of “found footage” you’ll wish had stayed lost, and by now you already know whether you’ll like it. For my part, this is the very brand of gutter I like to keep my head in, and I was mesmerized.
FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET
Argento gives us a killer with a tortured past, a handful of intriguing set pieces, and an 11th-hour plot twist, but none of it adds up, even by the grade-school-math standards of his other gialli. Nonetheless this is vintage Argento, and there are standout moments: The opening sequence, where the lead character finds himself framed for murder by a mysterious figure in a puppet mask; the drive to the detective’s office, where gear-shifts are intercut with concentric zooms; and the famous demise of the villain, which Ennio Morricone’s tender score and Argento’s slow-motion camerawork render unbearably sad. Should you see the whole film for a few moments like these? If you’re an Argento fan, you already know the answer. Just be forewarned that any islands of inspiration you encounter here are adrift in a sea of snooze.
Like most early Argento films, “Deep Red” is a resplendent mess, with visuals so arresting they make you forget there’s even supposed to be a story. It’s not just the gore that stands out, either—Argento directs every moment like he’s got ADD, finding ways to draw your eye (and mind) in weird directions even during scenes of pure exposition, while his camera zooms down hallways and aisles, lingers over fetishistic imagery, and fits looming architecture into the frame as often as cinematically possible. You feel less like you’re in a movie than on a ride. Against all odds, there is also a human dimension to “Rosso”, since the goofy romance between musician-cum-detective David Hemmings and reporter Daria Nicolodi is fun to watch, bad dubbing and all. The rest of the news you know by heart, since it’s Argento we’re talking about here: The screenplay is inane, the dialogue is mind-numbing, and unfortunately, the maestro continues his trend of using live animals in his pictures–and by using, I mean killing. It’s a wonder I don’t give up on this guy, but I love his eyes.
For earlier movie/TV entries, click here.