December 28, 2010


I was able to see more movies during the year than this guy. To honor him, I’m going to run down my favorite Genre Films of 2010. As top-ten lists rain down upon us, a general consensus emerges and recurring titles get chewed over like regurgitated cud. So while I greatly admire The Social Network (#2 on my year-end list here), I feel no need to spill more metaphorical ink over it. What doesn’t get recognized during the awards season hullaballoo are the disreputable action/sci-fi/horror movies that earn profits and low Rotten Tomatoes scores. I’m using the colloquial definition of “genre films”, of macho flicks with b-movie scenarios, but in reality everything that’s produced slots into one genre or another (David Bordwell persuasively argues that even the art film is one). So forgive my semantic fudging for the sake of headline-writing brevity. In any case, anonymous disfigured corpse from The Crazies, this is for you.

In Alphabetical Order:

Buried, directed by Rodrigo Cortes

Buried is a horror movie about thought processes, how the mind continually attempts to work itself out of danger, constantly running scenarios that will lead to the healthiest outcome. In this case, the problem is a casket, as Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) has been buried alive by an Iraqi insurgent looking for ransom money. The camera never leaves the casket for the entire running time, and manages to sustain the tension of Conroy’s plight, endlessly cycling through possible rescue plans. Provided with a cell phone to stump for the money to be paid, he triangulates between family, work and the law as his desperation rises, marking up the wood panels with strategies of survival. In the end, it’s a tour-de-force about the limitations of technology and of thought itself.


Centurion, directed by Neil Marshall

Remnants of a slaughtered platoon of Roman Soldiers navigate their way back home through Northern Scotland while fighting their way through the rebellious Pict natives. Director Neil Marshall (The Descent) is a reliable hand for cogently framing bloody mayhem, and the climactic battle between the splinter of Romans and Pict warriors is smartly choreographed. The central battle stakes Michael Fassbender against Olga Kuryenko, and the final blow is established in wide shot as Fassbender somersaults toward his victim. Then in two percussive inserts Marshall ends the secondary fight (a spear to the undercarriage) and the main one, as Fassbender places downward pressure on the sword after his sprightly evasive maneuver. The way in which Marshall creates a rhythm and clarity to this sequence, out of boilerplate material, is indicative of the film’s scrappy ingenuity.


The Crazies, directed by Breck Eisner

A relentless remake of George Romero’s 1973 original, it outlines the chaos that ensues after a biological weapon crash lands in a small mid-western town, turning its residents into psychotic murderers. I prized this one for its pared down screenplay, which strips away backstory, revealing character only through action. The narrative is constantly pushing forward, just like Sheriff David Dutten (Timothy Olyphant), who tries to spirit his wife out of the newly quarantined hot zone. Olyphant has perfected a thoughtful stoicism in his work, playing heroes who do the right thing, but whose pauses and mutterings imply that he wishes doing good wasn’t so much goddamn work.


Devil, directed by John Erick Dowdle

Slightly roomier than Buried, this M. Night Shyamalan produced potboiler takes place almost entirely in an elevator. A group of abrasive city-folk get stuck in a lift and start turning on each other. So far, so realistic, but there’s a metaphysical morality play tacked on to justify the underlying savagery. While this is a bit of a cop-out, I’ll forgive anything to watch DP Tak Fujimoto wend his SteadiCam around a neon-lit office building, tracing the paths of fate.


From Paris With Love, directed by Pierre Morel

This ridiculous concoction is the jokey B-side to Taken, Morel’s humorless revenge drama from 2009. Instead of a brow-furrowing Liam Neeson, it’s a face-pulling John Travolta, who plays CIA agent Charlie Wax like a macho Jerry Lewis (his yammers are punctuated by nasal screams, and he leaves destruction in his wake, except with Travolta it’s intentional). The fight scenes have the physics of a Loony Tunes short and the plot is totally improbable. In short, it’s almost perfect. If only the lead-footed Jonathan Rhys Meyers subplot hadn’t kept diverting things from the aria of Charlie Wax.


Frozen, directed by Adam Green

Frozen is a fine lesson in theme and variation. The plot is minimal, three dopey college kids stranded on a ski lift, but writer/director Green elaborates an escalating series of reasons for his characters to be terrified. The calculus of escape shifts from avoiding frostbite to stanching blood loss to avoiding death-by-wolf over the course of the first hour. It is the patience with which Green allows each new variation to sink in, to allow the morbid thought processes of each vapid character to be drawn out, that nicely ratchets up the tension of this minimalist bit of indie-horror.


Resident Evil: Afterlife, directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

On a purely visual level, one of the most impressive films I saw this year. Fully embracing 3D technology, Anderson sets up shots to emphasize depth, from the multi-layered, multi-planar Umbrella headquarters to the relative simplicity of a hole in the ground (which Joe Dante also explored in 3D in his still-undistributed The Hole). In the opening sequence, the background and foreground planes of action are so clear there is no need for cross-cutting. And Milla Jovovich continues her superb run as Alice, working the stoic hero territory as well as, say, Timothy Olyphant.


Splice, directed by Vincenzo Natali

A disturbing entry in the mad (but adorable) scientist sub-genre, it finds Adrian Brody and Sarah Polly gene-splicing their way to unwanted parenthood. Their little lab-creature develops a major Electra complex, and soon ignites the relationship anxieties simmering below the surface. They explode in psycho-incestual images that are hard to shake.


Undisputed 3, directed by Isaac Florentine

Direct-to-video but none the worse for it, this is the third part of a series initiated by Walter Hill in 2002 (I wrote about the whole series back in June). It refreshes the fight tournament scenario by capturing a variety of attacking styles with a high-speed camera, from capoeira to taekwondo, and hires athletes rather than slumming actors. Marko Zaror steals the show as the villain, a Garcia Lorca-reading heroin addict who is my pick for cinematic asshole of the year.


Unstoppable, directed by Tony Scott

The pleasures of motion, rendered with lucidity. There’s a runaway train, and Denzel Washington and Chris Pine have to track it down. The forward movement is not just over lines of track but through lines of communication.  Scott’s nimble cross-cutting between CEOs, middle-managers and station chief Rosario Dawson lays down the social strata that Denzel and Pine are burning through in order to do their jobs. It is within this shorthand class structure that slam-bang montages of speeding trains raise the pulse and recall the original cinematic thrill of the Lumiere Brothers’ L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat.


October 19, 2010


Jackass 3D had a gigantic opening weekend, bringing in $50 million, almost twice as much as its predecessor. Two weeks previously I watched Joe Dante’s The Hole 3D at the New York Film Festival, which is still without a distributor. The bump in the Jackass money is not only attributable to the 3D premium pricing, it attracted more admissions than its first two entries as well, as Ben Fritz reported in the L.A. Times.  Regardless of the flak the technology receives from critics like Roger Ebert, it draws crowds, and thus will be a part of the cinematic landscape for some time to come. And while muddy-looking 3D conversions will surely mar theaters in the future, there are plenty of productions that are producing fascinating depth effects with the new technology.

Let’s start with Jackass 3D and The Hole. I enjoyed both films, although they approached the technology from vastly differing positions. Jackass, a non-narrative parade of scatalogical slapstick, is a return to early silent filmmaking and the “cinema of attractions” that Tom Gunning identified. Gunning:

Rather than early approximations of the later practices of the style of classical film narration, aspects of early cinema are best understood if a purpose other than storytelling is factored in. Cinema as an attraction is that other purpose. By its reference to the curiosity-arousing devices of the fairground, the term denoted early cinema’s fascination with novelty and its foregrounding of the act of display.

All of Jackass 3D is the act of display pushed to its perverse limit, vaudeville huckster versions of Marina Abramovic. Both work at exposing the limits of our bodies, Jackass through shots to the groin, Abramovic through exchanged slaps with her lover, among endless other examples. I tend to think her humor and the Jackass crew’s intelligence are both underrated. In another echo, Abromovich had a smashingly successful retrospective at MoMA this year, which is where Jackass 3D held its premiere. MoMA curator Josh Siegel says that Johnny Knoxville and company’s work is, “merely the climax — or the lowest depths, if you prefer — of a tradition that dates back to 1895, when the Lumière brothers drenched a poor sap with a garden hose and filmed it.” (from Dennis Lim’s primer in the NY Times). My favorite bits involved fun with a harrier jet’s exhaust and a delightfully revolting stunt involving a sweat cocktail.

3D is the shiniest new weapon in their toolbox, and so they gleefully push the technology to purely presentational ends. Gunning again, “The attraction directly addresses the spectator, acknowledging the viewer’s presence and seeking to quickly satisfy a curiosity.” 3D is another delivery system in satisfying this curiosity, of how a tooth could be pulled by a Lamborghini, or what a “poop cocktail supreme” could possibly entail. For most of the film, the technology is cheaply utilized. The crew used their normal prosumer cameras for their mixture of planned/improvised shenanigans. Then it was processed into 3D in post. For these sections, it is just a gimmick. However, in the beginning and closing minutes there are sequences filmed stereoscopically in super slow motion with Phantom HD Gold Cameras. As the men are knocked down by dildos and other implements, their skin ripples like plasticene waves, and the split-second fear before the blows are noticeable in these aging stunt-men’s eyes.

The Hole is another story, a family-oriented horror movie that was entirely filmed in stereoscopic 3D, using the Dolby process. Joe Dante is a student of the form, having watched almost every 3D film ever made during the previous boom in the 1950s and 60s (his lifetime of research can be watched at his fiendishly entertaining site Trailers From Hell). The film’s title implies physical depth, and Dante takes advantage of the narrative device at every turn. The top-lining photo gives an impression of his work here, with constant use of entrances and exits, with the kids grouped and choreographed so there is constant motion back and forth from background to foreground. The film is an eyeful. In the Q&A following the screening at the NYFF, Dante said he thought the Dolby process was too dark, preferring the RealD system which most big-budget releases use. But RealD needs a special silver screen to be projected on, and for a low-budget film in which theater space would at a minimum, the Dolby process was necessary, as it can be projected onto regular screens.

Dante also discussed 3D dos and dont’s including avoiding cuts on quick motion, because the level of eyestrain involved. The film flew along, a combination of classic Dantaen elements like a suffocating suburbia, coming-of-age subtexts, a Dick Miller sighting, and a rich intertextual conversation with film history. The major touchstone here seems to be German Expressionism, from the hat tip to Hands of Orlac in the cheekily named “Gloves of Orlac” factory, to the vertiginous, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari inspired set design in the finale.

It’s unbelievable that the film, about kids who discover a portal into their own subconscious in their basement, has no distributor. It’s wildly entertaining and reliably scary (a harlequin puppet had my wife gripping my arm), and contains some of the most imaginative uses of 3D that I’ve seen all year.

The other great 3D film this year, is, believe it or not, Resident Evil: Afterlife. I am an admirer of Paul W.S. Anderson’s genre chops (I did an overview of his career for IFC News), and I think it’s his best film. There is a superb use of depth effects throughout. From the start it was shot in 3D, with Anderson saying that, “I wrote things into this script that I knew would work well in 3D, like lots of sets with depth-like tunnels, elevator shafts, and big wide landscapes.” That alone gives him more awareness  of how to shoot in depth than the botched 3D conversions on Piranha 3D (which I enjoyed regardless) and Clash of the Titans (read this interview with James Cameron for some interesting notes about that conversion). Along with the simple, effective use of locations, there is a sense of choreography that utilized 3D to its fullest extent. In the opening sequence, clones of Milla Jovovich are fighting their way through an underground lab, making their way to the villain. As he barks orders in the foreground, in the extreme background the brawling Jovoviches tear their way through a lower floor, creeping their way higher. Anderson dispenses with parallel editing, marking her progress by cutting back and forth, and presents it in one economical and incredibly tense 3D image. It’s a marvel of narrative economy and speaks to the ingenuity possible with the technology.

Although to be honest, the finest 3D film I saw this year was still Raoul Walsh’s Gun Fury, from 1953. Nothing has effected me more than the simple use of dust kicking up in the foreground as Rock Hudson plots his revenge behind it. Maybe such simple pleasures would come back to the current 3D wave if The Hole found some success, and encouraged more mid-budgeted, modest 3D productions to get made. Here’s hoping.