Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Fifty Best Movies

I have contributed a list of the fifty best movies of all time to a website called Of course, whittling down a list of fifty narrative films from over a century’s worth of cinematic output is no exercise in absoluteness but here it is anyway. Feel free to berate me for any choices or omissions. I tried to avoid films that have been deemed important but are relatively ordinary in cinematic terms in favor of films that have had a considerable effect on the medium itself, are distinct and perhaps most important – are entertaining!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Teeth: She Can Cut You Like a Knife

"Yes, the film is essentially a one-trick vagina, but it’s an unforgettable one — even if it requires virtually every male character to be an amoral horndog."

Click here to read my review in The L Magazine

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

This Movie Sucks: Juno What I Mean?

Alright, so that’s overly hostile. Juno is okay and I concede that by the end, it’s difficult not to get wrapped up in things, but this movie is infuriatingly overrated. The angry rant that follows is a response to the near universal praise – both critical and popular – and the impending Oscar nomination for Best Picture that will be announced on January 22nd.

The only form of commiseration for my distaste for Juno I have so far been able to find comes in the writings of New York Magazine’s ever-reliable David Edelstein, L Magazine’s film editor Mark Asch and the Chicago Sun-Times’ pop music critic Jim DeRogatis. In hope of finding more people with my feelings I figured I’d store my dissatisfaction with the film electronically.

My biggest bone of contention is the dialogue by screenwriter Diablo Cody. It’s all so overwritten and so painfully yearning to be hip. Admittedly, I have enjoyed films in which the dialogue is just as blatantly overcooked – Woody Allen, the occasional Wes Anderson film – but the characters in Juno talk in a code indiscernible to the viewer. Just like those smug cats in the Ocean’s sequels, Juno (Ellen Page) and her ilk talk in purposefully mystifying mumbo jumbo that reeks of “I’m cooler than you are, mere moviegoer.” Edelstein voices similar exasperation nicely, “The relentlessly jokey banter of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is taken to a screechy new level. Every character’s wisecracks come from the same place, like in bad Neil Simon.”

What separates Juno from the work of Woody Allen or Wes Anderson is that the characters in their films all exist within a confined universe in which everyone talks that way. Juno, on the other hand, offers a maddeningly inconsistent universe. During the first twenty minutes – twenty of the most unbearable minutes of 2007, I honestly contemplated walking out of my screening to find refuge in No Country for Old Men – we are bombarded with the same sort of rapid-fire banter from every single character. If the film had continued that way, I would have indeed hated it but at least it would have been true to its universe. Instead, it introduces us to the adoptive parent characters, Mark (Jason Bateman) and Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), who are complex and intriguing characters who actually talk like – gasp – human beings.

Not surprisingly, this is around when I started warming to the film; when I realized not everyone in the film talked like Juno. I was relieved that I found a few characters to invest interest in but I was also frustrated because it meant the first twenty minutes were so incredibly disingenuous. If we are to later find out that sane people also inhabit this universe, why initially surround Juno only by characters just as irritatingly verbose as her: the cheerleader best friend (Olivia Thirlby), step-mom (Allison Janney), the abortion clinic receptionist, the anti-abortion protestor and most egregiously, the convenience store employee (Rainn Wilson)? A.O. Scott does make an eloquent case for excusing the film’s horrible beginning: “like Juno herself, the film outgrows its own mannerisms and defenses, evolving from a coy, knowing farce into a heartfelt, serious comedy.”But even if I were to accept Scott’s words or any of the other ways the film’s proponents choose to forgive the lousy opening, my reservations extend throughout the entirety of the film and beyond my base hatred for the irritating Juno as a character.

One of Mark Asch's many well-argued frustration is over the film's endemic striving to be hip quality, attacking the film for being just as hung up about being cool as the characters are depicted to be: “Get ready for shoehorned-in name-drops of Sonic Youth, the Melvins, the Runaways, Suspiria, etc.” Out of those, the ones that pissed me off the most were the Sonic Youth and Suspiria scenes because they’re written and presented with such pretentiousness. In the Sonic Youth scene, Mark puts on a record and tells Juno that she’ll have never heard anything like this and the camera lets it play out with great revelation, even though it’s the same Carpenter’s cover that was used 12 years ago and less crassly in Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners. Even more frustrating is when Mark forces Juno to watch Hershell Gordon Lewis’ The Wizard of Gore after she proclaims Dario Argento to be the best blood and guts horror director. While the two watch the film, Juno gasps in wonderment, “Wow, this is even better than Suspiria. The sticking point here is that anyone who has seen more than one Argento film would never compare the supernatural and less bloody (at least in terms of Argento and Lewis) Suspiria to The Wizard of Gore. Yes, my disgust for these two scenes is an example of nit picking to a considerable degree but it gets under my skin because the film is so clearly proud of their “offbeat” references. To these scenes I respond with DeRogatis’ opening statement, “Get real, 'Juno': You're a phony.”

I don’t want to get too wrapped up in the film’s stance (or lack of stance) on abortion (DeRogatis and Asch already do a sterling job dissecting the matter) but I will say that the rosy-colored everything’s fine ending does make me a little uneasy about the positive portrayal of teen pregnancy that is presented. Maybe the scenes of the eight-month pregnant Juno strutting through the halls of her high school without concern or her step-mother defending her honor during an ultrasound can offer beacons of hope for any real-life girls in similar situations but the detriment of the film’s decision to omit the full effects of the social stigma that would have ensued outweigh any illusory scenes of empowerment. That we don’t see active menace through scorn, ridicule or even violence from her classmates or neighbors or that her schoolwork is in no way impacted by a nine month pregnancy is enough of a problem. But what really gets me is the unbelievable aspect of Juno’s cheerleader friend sticking by her side throughout the pregnancy. It extends well beyond my realm of suspension of disbelief to buy that a cheerleader, no matter how quirky, would still be seen conversing with a pregnant sixteen-year-old girl in the super-judgmental world of high school, let alone continuing to eat with her at lunch time (sitting inside some sort of school trophy case for that matter, but that’s another issue…).

So, there are some positives in the film: Bateman’s performance, it’s got me listening to Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” again, some very successful lines (“Paulie Bleeker? I didn’t think he had it in him.”) and perhaps most importantly, as pointed out by A.O. Scott, “[the film] respects the idiosyncrasies of its characters rather than exaggerating them or holding them up for ridicule.” It’s this last point that makes the film tolerable and what distinguishes itself from the wretched Napoleon Dynamite, a film it inevitably evokes in style, which – surprise, surprise – is also a film that Cody cites as an influence on her script in a recent interview with Matt Hoey in Written By.

Yes, I admit my distaste for Juno is impacted by the near-universal love for the film and had it not caught on like wildfire, I would be fine to let it fade away into the recesses of other 2007 films that irked me in such a way. But it’s Edelstein’s chilling premonitory words that scare me into adding my two bits on the matter: “Prepare yourself for the Juno generation.”

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Top 10 of 2007

1. Zodiac

2. Knocked Up
3. The Bourne Ultimatum
4. In the Shadow of the Moon
5. No Country For Old Men
6. Rescue Dawn
7. Rocket Science
8. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
9. Into the Wild
10. The Lookout

Honorable Mentions: 1408, Atonement, Breach, Michael Clayton, Ratatouille