The last year of any decade usually a watershed year, we come to the end of 2009 with a bounty of riches. A year that just a couple of months ago I feared wouldn't yield ten films from which to choose has, through a flurry of screeners and late-season additions, convinced me of its cinematic legitimacy. Find in the top ten three war films, five films about the state and politics of the modern family, one about a poet, and one about a cop. Discover that each of the first ten has a direct corollary in the next ten (suggesting that there's a good bit of synchronicity in 2009), and that although women directors remain a novelty, three penetrate the top ten for the first time in my decade of lists. Other threads include a continuation of the last two years' feelings of disconnection and entropy indulged, the notion that institutions of right are the ones perpetrating the bulk of atrocity, and investigations into the self that mainly fulfill Nietzsche's maxim of abysses looking into the lookers. It's a summary list, in a way, of the '00s.
January 1, 2010|The last year of the first ten or the first year of the next ten, 2010 finds the state of our motion pictures as an awkward, yearling thing, finding purchase in the aftermath of the fear and nihilism of the post-9/11 state in something as dark but perhaps now more purposeful than despairing. If the best films of the immediately-after are represented by stuff like No Country for Old Men and Synecdoche, NY, the best films of this liminal year are pilgrims in search of a (doomed) idea of perfection and the dreadful cost of its pursuit. Is that explanation in part for the rise of geek culture (The Social Network, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, It's Kind of a Funny Story, Kick-Ass), this gradual empowerment of the weaker position? While examinations of vengeance and solipsism continue to be tough themes to shake, they've begun taking the form of marginal uplift as opposed to mostly-undiluted nihilism.
Image B+ Sound B+ Extras B- "An Aborted Dinner Date," "A Poorly Executed Plan," "Eenie Meenie Miney MURDER!," "S.D.I.-AYE-AYE!," "The First Lady's Persqueeter," "Mom 'E' D.E.A. Arrest," "Trapped in a Small Environment," "Fare Thee Welfare"
"What we're sick of--and it's getting even worse--is: You either like Michael Moore or you wanna fuckin' go overseas and shoot Iraqis. There can't be a middle ground. Basically, if you think Michael Moore's full of shit, then you are a super-Christian right-wing whatever. And we're both just pretty middle-ground guys. We find just as many things to rip on on the left as we do on the right. People on the far left and the far right are the same exact person to us." -- Trey Parker, "Interview of the Meanest"; IN FOCUS, October 2004
by Ian Pugh I think "South Park" boasts the occasional flash of brilliance, but I resent that its more flagrantly political messages, particularly in the past few seasons, essentially boil down to 'both sides are fucking crazy: here's how it really is.' Trey Parker and Matt Stone strike me less as philosophers than as contrarians who force their perceived sensible alternatives down our throats as the infallible Solution. It's a shame, too, because Parker and Stone remain two of the most talented satirists of our generation, if not in terms of hot-button topics: The ending of the recent "South Park" episode "Stanley's Cup," for instance, attacked sports movies by reminding us that every game involves two teams with similar aspirations, and, of course, Team America: World Police's caustic parody of "Rent" is as concise and shocking a criticism of that musical as one will find. I'm not taking the stupidly dismissive "I like you better when you're funny" position that Tucker Carlson had towards Jon Stewart on CNN's "Crossfire", but in the world of "South Park", there are only three options when it comes to world events: left, right, and middle, the latter being invariably correct. Compared to the innumerable increments in the political spectrum of reality, three extremes are no better than two.
DISNEY'S A CHRISTMAS CAROL
**½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B
screenplay by Robert Zemeckis, based on the novel by Charles Dickens
directed by Robert Zemeckis
THE FOURTH KIND
starring Milla Jovovich, Will Patton, Corey Johnson, Elias Koteas
written and directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi
by Ian Pugh If Robert Zemeckis hasn't quite left the Uncanny Valley behind, at the very least, the heart missing from his latest effort--what seems like the trillionth retelling of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol, and the billionth animated one--correlates directly to its absence of personality, rather than to an absence of humanity. A backhanded compliment, to be sure, but the character designs finally resemble something closer to artistic interpretation than to a failed attempt at replicating human beings exactly as they are, with Marley (Gary Oldman) and Scrooge (Jim Carrey), for example, rendered almost expressionistically to evoke rotten apples and hunched skeletons. From that standpoint, the actors' sudden bursts of acrobatic grace, no longer so incongruous, capture some of computer-animated cinema's wonder, the kind at which Zemeckis has grasped since The Polar Express--a true example of bringing the impossible to life. The only problem is that Zemeckis's own script isn't worth more than a shrug, and the film relies too much on its visuals to carry the extra weight.
ZERO STARS/**** Image B- Sound B
starring John Goodman, Ethan Suplee, Delta Burke, Chris Kattan
written by Larry Wilson and Tom Martin, based on the book by Phyllis McGinley
directed by Ron Underwood
by Ian Pugh I'm not really sure how anyone could consider Santa Claus the cure for December commercialism in this day and age, but it appears to be a popular sentiment right now. Before I knew that the network-television abortion The Year Without a Santa Claus existed, I suffered through The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause, a film that carries the same awful message in a way that's worth mentioning. Tricked by Martin Short's Jack Frost into relinquishing the job of Santa Claus to him, Tim Allen's Scott Calvin returns to the North Pole to discover that Christmas has become "Frostmas," an overwrought celebration of capitalism with all the child-screaming and toy-grabbing that implies. With Jack-Santa having literally taken the "Christ" out of Christmas, Tim Allen strangely becomes a surrogate Jesus figure attempting to reclaim his holiday from the money-grubbing fat man of false jolliness, who of course represents the holiday season as we know it in reality. The Santa Clause 3 essentially amounts to an episode of Allen's sitcom "Home Improvement", which is to say not only that it's terrible, but also that its attempt at a metaphor is crude and obvious--come on, Santa Claus saving Christmas from himself? In retrospect, though, I have to admit that its joyfully malevolent predisposition to be such a balls-out hypocrite is a real head-scratcher worthy of further dissection.
**½/**** Image A+ Sound B Extras A-
starring Sean Connery, Ursula Andress, Joseph Wiseman, Jack Lord
screenplay by Richard Maibaum & Johanna Hardwood & Berkely Mather, based on the novel by Ian Fleming
directed by Terence Young
by Ian Pugh Sean Connery looks utterly lost in Dr. No. From the vantage point of this first crack at a big-screen James Bond, it's easy to see why Ian Fleming initially dismissed him as an "overgrown stuntman." Unable to convey much beyond a dashing, self-important man of the world, his attempts at cold-blooded murder and forceful interrogation are dispassionate and wooden at best. Considering how his individual performances as Bond rose and fell with different interpretations of the formula1, one wonders if Connery served as a barometer of the filmmakers' confidence in the series' early days. It's evident that no one involved with Dr. No had a very clear idea of what that formula was, or would be. How far should we go in directly translating the book for the screen? Even the possibility of sequels turns out to be a question that distracts from a successful product: A little too bombastic for a leitmotif, Monty Norman's now-familiar "James Bond Theme" follows our hero around as if testing the waters, toying with the possibility that this character could support a series.
****/**** Image A Sound B Extras A- starring Sean Connery, Daniela Bianchi, Pedro Armendáriz, Lotte Lenya
screenplay by Richard Maibaum, based on the novel by Ian Fleming
directed by Terence Young
by Ian Pugh The first indelible image of From Russia with Love finds steely-eyed, platinum-blond killer Red Grant (Robert Shaw) taking a garrotte to James Bond (Sean Connery), slowly choking the life out of him without witty repartee or a single hope of close-shave escape. The victim turns out to be an impostor, live-target practice for Grant's escapades later in the film--but that momentary shock establishes right from the start that the rules have changed since last we saw 007. Here's a point in time when we weren't completely conditioned to accept Bond as undefeatable, when it wasn't unreasonable to believe that these globetrotting adventures could come to an unfortunate end at any moment. In fact, I wonder if it's reasonable to regard the unpolished Dr. No as mere prologue to From Russia with Love1, with the breezy, romantic life of a Cold War secret agent violently exposed as a lie.
**/**** Image C+ Sound A Extras B+
starring Sean Connery, Claudine Auger, Adolfo Celi, Luciana Paluzzi
screenplay by Richard Maibaum and John Hopkins,
based on the novel by Ian Fleming
directed by Terence Young
by Ian PughThunderball is far from the worst Bond film--you'd be hard-pressed to even label it outright bad--but it may be the entry in this venerated series most worthy of contempt for its concerted, ultimately successful effort to formulize its hero's adventures. After the grim uncertainty of From Russia with Love and the classic iconography of Goldfinger, Thunderball is more than content to let a suddenly-enormous budget ($9M compared to Goldfinger's $3M) carry it far, far over-the-top with ludicrous underwater battles and pieces of gadgetry that become full-blown set-pieces in and of themselves. (That jet-pack sequence must have been astonishing in 1965, but it comes from a different cinematic world entirely--and, maddeningly, the filmmakers bend over backwards to accommodate it.) It's not too difficult to understand such a lopsided reliance on special effects, however, considering that Thunderball's premise is far too slim to accommodate its bloated 130-minute running time: SPECTRE hijacks a NATO bomber jet and threatens to detonate its nuclear warheads in a major city in America or Great Britain unless both governments pay a hefty ransom. Heading the operation is Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi), a sinister something-or-other calling the shots out of the Bahamas. Bond travels to Nassau to contact "Domino" Derval (Claudine Auger), Largo's mistress and sister of the missing jet's pilot, and persuades her to help.
**½/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras A-
starring Roger Moore, Yaphet Kotto, Jane Seymour, Clifton James
screenplay by Tom Mankiewicz, based on the novel by Ian Fleming
directed by Guy Hamilton
by Ian Pugh As a young teenager and budding cinephile, I owned all the Bond films on VHS. I remember watching Live and Let Die more often than any of the others, probably because--crushes on Jane Seymour notwithstanding--as a viewer without any working sense of social context, it was the easiest film of the series to just sit back and enjoy. No Cold War scenarios requiring global perspective, no long-standing rivalries requiring explanation; Thunderball perfected the infamous Bond formula to dubious ends, but this is the entry that endeared you to its simplicity. In his first turn in the role, Roger Moore's easygoing charm was a better fit for the youngest 007 neophytes than the rough, brutish Connery--and, despite being mired in a hopelessly-dated '70s landscape, the action sequences are sharply directed and tightly edited. In fact, they'd assure that the film would hold up pretty well today for more adult sensibilities...that is, if its script didn't revolve around James Bond fighting every single black person in the Western hemisphere.
*/**** Image B+ Sound A Extras B+
starring Roger Moore, Carole Bouquet, Topol, Julian Glover
screenplay by Richard Maibum and Michael G. Wilson
directed by John Glen
by Ian Pugh Already something of a dinosaur in a season that saw Indiana Jones explode onto the cinematic landscape, For Your Eyes Only was the first 007 film that found Roger Moore looking too old to be a roguish, oversexed secret agent. Having played Bond four times previously over the course of eight years, it was readily apparent that Moore aged well, better than most--which clearly accounted for his longevity in the role. I have to wonder, then, if his suddenly-elderly appearance here is a reflection of the fact that he's so clearly out of his element. He found his footing in the part once the powers-that-be realized he could succeed where Connery had failed: The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker were overblown and more than a little silly, but they were legitimized in part by their star's sly grin and complete comfort in tackling the largest, most preposterous schemes possible--something to which the admirably analog Connery could never entirely adjust. For Your Eyes Only was intended to bring the series back to its down-and-dirty roots, but it only managed to remind that Moore was a square peg unfit for the round hole his predecessor occupied.
*½/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras B+
starring Sean Connery, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Max Von Sydow, Edward Fox
screenplay by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
directed by Irvin Kershner
by Ian Pugh After decades of legal wrangling, producer Kevin McClory had finally won the right to make an autonomous James Bond flick out of Ian Fleming's Thunderball, and 1983 seemed like the perfect time to capitalize on it, what with resident Bond Roger Moore's age catching up with him and the original series running out of steam as a consequence. A household name, the character of Bond has enough cultural heft and influence that he warrants interpretations from independent sources besides, and given that Sean Connery was lured out of a twelve-year retirement from the character--hence the title, Never Say Never Again--as well as the room for improvement left by the original Thunderball, the film had the potential to be more than just a cynical cash-in.
***/**** Image A Sound B Extras C
starring Lauren German, Roger Bart, Heather Matarazzo, Bijou Phillips
written and directed by Eli Roth
by Ian Pugh SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. A continuation of the original film's premise of murder as a commodity available to those who can afford it, death is the only earthly pleasure in the world of Eli Roth's Hostel Part II, not just as a metaphorical substitution but as an active replacement for every other human itch as well. Killing and dying are the only ways to earn respect from your peers--the only ways to pass the time and especially the only ways to get your rocks off. In this sense, the film simultaneously embraces and resists the notion of subtext in the images that seem to most warrant some kind of allegorical interpretation; when some poor bastard has his penis placed in mortal jeopardy, you might see it as an exertion of sexual supremacy--but more likely, the act is simply the last word in torture for a disturbing landscape where mutilation is the alpha and the omega. Where visual suggestions of the Grim Reaper are so omnipresent because the phrase "I am become Death" has become orgasmic in its literality.
CHILD'S PLAY ***/**** DVD - Image A- Sound A- Extras B+ BD - Image A Sound A Extras B+ starring Catherine Hicks, Chris Sarandon, Alex Vincent, Brad Dourif
screenplay by Don Mancini and John Lafia and Tom Holland
directed by Tom Holland
CHILD'S PLAY 2 (1990) **/**** Image C+ Sound A- starring Alex Vincent, Jenny Agutter, Gerrit Graham, Brad Dourif
screenplay by Don Mancini
directed by John Lafia
CHILD'S PLAY 3 (1991) */**** Image B- Sound A- starring Justin Whalin, Perrey Reeves, Jeremy Sylvers, Brad Dourif
screenplay by Don Mancini
directed by Jack Bender
BRIDE OF CHUCKY (1998) **/**** Image B Sound B Extras C starring Jennifer Tilly, Brad Dourif, Katherine Heigl, Nick Stabile
screenplay by Don Mancini
directed by Ronny Yu
SEED OF CHUCKY (2004) */**** Image A- Sound B Extras C- starring Jennifer Tilly, Brad Dourif, Billy Boyd, Redman
written and directed by Don Mancini
by Ian Pugh SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Twenty years and four sequels later, it's obviously pointless to try to conceal that Child's Play is about a serial killer (Brad Dourif) who transfers his soul into an innocuous doll, but watching it today--more than a decade after it thoroughly traumatized me as an impressionable preteen--I was surprised to learn that the film itself didn't do much to hide that fact from the start. Oh, sure, when you first approach Child's Play, you're ostensibly supposed to wonder whether little Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent) is responsible for the murders peppered throughout, despite his loud protestations that Chucky did it. But no, it never really tries to pretend that these horrible acts are being committed by anyone other than that godawful doll. In taking that perspective, Child's Play preys upon the irrational fears we all harbour--that sting of dread we get at the sight of an unintentionally unsettling toy, immediately wished away by safe, immutable reason: that's impossible--a doll can't hurt you.
Image B Sound A- Extras C
"Dia de los Dangerous!," "Careers in Science," "Mid-Life Chrysalis," "Eeney, Meeney, Miney... Magic!," "The Incredible Mr. Brisby," "Tag Sale--You're It!," "Home Insecurity," "Ghosts of the Sargasso," "Ice Station--Impossible!," "Are You There, God? It's Me, Dean.," "Past Tense," "The Trial of the Monarch," "Return to Spider-Skull Island"
by Ian Pugh Lengthy postmodern discussions about the drug use in "Scooby-Doo" and the sexual habits of the Smurfs dominated the public mind long before TimeWarner acquired the Hanna-Barbera catalogue. It was only a logical move, then, that TimeWarner's Cartoon Network would devote much of its late-night Adult Swim programming block ("Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law", "Sealab 2021", and, to a lesser degree, "Robot Chicken") to taking the old H-B anti-classics and filtering them through the fine mesh screen of a contemporary ironic eye. Look here, we've got an old superhero, he's an attorney now, that's pretty wacky! Check it out, we've turned the straightforward drama of "Sealab 2020" into angry surrealism! It works to varying degrees of success, primarily depending upon the individual show's (or individual episode's) willingness to move beyond the inherent ridiculousness of its premise. What can we say, then, when "The Venture Bros." represents the kids-on-adventures serial "Jonny Quest", a series centred on a family whose surname is a literal synonym for the characters being parodied? Are we meant to gasp when brilliant über-dad Dr. Benton Quest becomes Dr. Thaddeus "Rusty" Venture (voiced by Henry Fool's James Urbaniak), an ignorant pill-popper, negligent of his teenage sons Hank (co-creator Jackson Publick) and Dean (Michael Sinterniklaas)? Or when bodyguard/second father figure Race Bannon becomes Brock Samson (Patrick Warburton), an emotionally-detached psychopath?
***/**** Image B+ Sound A- Extras C- starring Owen Wilson, Jason Sudeikis, Jenna Fischer, Christina Applegate screenplay by Pete Jones & Peter Farrelly and Kevin Barnett & Bobby Farrelly directed by Peter Farrelly & Bobby Farrelly
by Ian Pugh SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Rick Mills (Owen Wilson) is in real estate and Fred Searing (Jason Sudeikis) sells life insurance--and yet these guys treat their own marriages, indeed their own lives, as an epic burden, so where do they get off trying to sell us peace-of-mind? Their leering obsession with sex has become all-consuming of late, prompting their wives (Maggie (Jenna Fischer) and Grace (Christina Applegate)) to grant them a hall pass: a "week off from marriage" in which they have the freedom to do whatever they want with the opposite sex without fear of recrimination. The Farrelly Brothers' Hall Pass tells a fairly conventional story about men and women who very slowly come to recognize just how much they love their significant others. But one thing it doesn't fully reconcile is this impulse that finds the movie's middle-aged male characters blinking madly at attractive women, taking "mental photographs for [their] spank bank"--because even once they've learned their lessons and shouted them from the rooftops, they're still taking those mental photographs. Beneath a thin veneer of sex jokes, the movie is about the denial and suppression of regret that occurs in the quest for long-term happiness.