The Screening Room - Day 3

Welcome to the Screening Room, Las Vegas Weekly’s critical look back at the year in movies (with a tip of the hat to Slate’s Movie Club for inspiration). All this week, film critics Josh Bell, Mark Holcomb, Jeffrey M. Anderson and Tony Macklin will be discussing the best and worst films of the year, and the trends that defined 2007. Check back each day this week for a new installment, and catch up with Day 1 and Day 2.

Josh Bell: Mark and Jeff, thanks for defending Zodiac and horror movies, respectively, more eloquently than I’d probably be able to at the moment. The defense of horror, at least, is one I’ve had to make many times in the past (once, in fact, over lunch with Tony Macklin) and expect to make many more times in the future. In my hope not to despair over the current state of horror films, I looked back over my list of movies I saw this year trying to find some bright spots, but good Lord is it, well, horrific (The Hitcher, Blood & Chocolate, The Messengers, Dead Silence, The Reaping, Halloween, Awake, stop me before I kill again). Still, in addition to the few already mentioned, I did like the brutality and darkness of 30 Days of Night, John Cusack’s one-man show in 1408 and at least some of the sheer insanity of Bug (which I know Jeff loved), if that qualifies as a horror movie. Maybe part of the problem is that whenever a really talented, original filmmaker crops up in the horror genre, they move into something a little more “respectable” once they’ve achieved success. David Cronenberg is one of the greatest horror directors of all time, and as much as I appreciated Eastern Promises, I feel kind of nostalgic for the days when he made movies about nasty creatures that sprouted from people’s sexual organs (you know, his early, funny stuff).

Not to derail this into a dissection of the state of modern horror, but I think the lack of respectability that Jeff has talked about is part of the reason that there are so many terrible movies in the genre. It’s as if people are ashamed of making good movies that also happen to be horror; I doubt you’ll see Peter Jackson or Sam Raimi returning to their horror roots any time soon. Even Neil Marshall of the great The Descent is making a relatively big-budget sci-fi thriller as his next project (which, if we’re lucky, will have a bit of horror in it). That’s why I will ever-so-briefly go to bat for Eli Roth, who I think we can all acknowledge is a complete douchebag, but who at least stands up for his convictions and isn’t shy about proclaiming his horror films works of real artistic expression. I see him (and people like Rob Zombie as well) sticking up for the genre when so many are eager to dismiss it out of hand without any real consideration.

Back to Zodiac: I’m a huge fan of Seven (and of Fincher in general), but I agree with Mark that the suave-serial-killer bit has gotten way out of control since Silence of the Lambs, and Seven is a big reason for that. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of No Country for Old Men practically blames movies like this for all of society’s ills (and puts No Country in the same category), and while I don’t at all agree with him, I do think Zodiac offers a refreshing counterpoint—not only to the notion of the smart, sympathetic killer, but also to the notion of the dedicated detective who triumphs over the naysayers. In Zodiac, the killer (whoever he is) isn’t that smart or sympathetic, and no one triumphs over anything. Calling it a procedural I think is a little too simplistic, because what’s best about it is that it’s a meta-procedural, a movie about how procedure itself is maddening and impossible and in a lot of ways antithetical to actually solving crimes.

I find it amusing and a little telling that three of us now have brought up the “Juno—wha?” question without attempting to answer it, because this is a movie about which my opinion seems to be changing every day, with every new thing I read. Despite its overwhelmingly positive reviews (94% on Rotten Tomatoes), there’s a sizable and vehement backlash among certain critics and bloggers, and I really feel like I can see both sides of this issue. It does strike me as often overly precious, faux-hip and insincere, but I also felt genuine empathy from the characters and the writing, and I think part of what it’s about is the way that teens engage in a sort of false hipness to preemptively ward off any danger of real emotion or sentiment. In that sense, its quirkiness is part of its narrative journey, and I can accept it. But the way the film has been adopted as some badge of alterna-cred by some journalists is troubling, and I do think it’s one of those movies whose “indie” veneer hides a very conventional story (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing). Who knows, though—my position could change entirely by tomorrow. It’s that kind of movie.

It’s getting late, so I’ll just throw out one more topic that hasn’t been mentioned but I think ought to be addressed: 300. The memory may have faded a bit, but back in March this movie was hugely controversial, and sparked the often-inane debate about whether critics are out of touch with the movie-going public and ought to be summarily done away with. I personally had the honor of being quoted on a few right-wing blogs as an example of what’s wrong with the lefty pinkos of American film criticism, and I was a little taken aback at the virulence of the reactions to this film (and to any criticism of it). The celebration of chauvinism, anti-intellectualism and might-makes-right philosophy in 300 really disgusted me, and its embrace by the self-proclaimed “geek” culture was shocking. Maybe I just overreacted because I was picked on in junior high, but to me this was the playground bully of American cinema. Am I crazy?


Mark Holcomb: I agree that horror films are at an all-time low, and also despair that directors who are good at them inevitably move on (or fizzle out, like John Carpenter). The Mist looks promising, though, and there are a few interesting, scary things going on in I Am Legend, which is generally a dog—a German shepherd on a treadmill, to be precise. But I also wonder if the genre in its pure form is just played out, and that moviegoers have become too sophisticated to be scared by bogeymen and gothic hoo-ha. That would explain why gore-porn gets more and more extreme in an effort to get a rise out of people.

For me, Zodiac and No Country for Old Men are more frightening than anything in the Saw movies or their kin, and the Coens’ movie satisfied the physical-release requirement Jeff mentioned. Those movies pointedly dismiss any notion that people who do bad things are somehow super-human or non-human, despite Jonathan Rosenbaum’s efforts to shoehorn Anton Chigurh into the Hannibal Lecter mold, and I suspect that’s where horror is headed—if it isn’t already there. Works for me; I’ll take it where I can get it.

The upside may be that pure monster movies will undergo a renaissance, a la The Host and (hopefully) Cloverfield. As long as Rob Zombie doesn’t remake Mothra, I’m cool with that.

On to horror of another kind: 300. I watched it on DVD, so my impressions are skewed, but I just found it ugly to look at and dumb in the extreme; it doesn’t really surprise me that it found an audience in Dick Cheney’s America, though—it’s the anti-No Country for Old Men. As for Juno, the fuss eludes me: It’s small, sweet, clunky (though not quite as clunky as Thank You for Smoking) and self-satisfied in a way that I was mostly able to overlook. Personally, Rocket Science was the teen movie to beat this year, but nobody saw it.


Tony Macklin: If I remember my lunch with Josh, I tried to get him beyond hamburger. He wouldn’t bite. He’s a meat-and potatoes, no-vegetables guy.

I don’t disagree with any of the passionate defenses you guys have offered for horror movies and the genre. I respect and enjoy your comments. It’s just not my cup of blood. I salute you; I admire good, committed writing.

One thing that has stuck in my bloodless craw, and which I have slept on before responding, is Jeff’s comment that the technology in Zodiac is just the literal element of a period piece.

(Piquant aside to Jeff—that’s like ignoring the grave of Truffaut at the end of The Truth About Charlie.)

Fincher is meticulous, and he’s also very symbolic. In his films he brings the world of the past to collision with the present. In Zodiac the emphasis on Dirty Harry, the lack of communication between officers and departments, old means of communication in a brave new world, the contrast of old machinery and new machinery seem to me to be more than just literal. Much of the meaning of Zodiac lies beyond the literal. Procedure can be meaningful.

I agree that Juno is perplexing. I think I’m leery of being conned—one of my major fortes is my skepticism (I did shelve it with Into the Wild). But I think Juno also deserves my shelving it.

Juno starts with coyness, but it allows humanity in. One easily can applaud or denigrate the script by Diablo Cody; but after a cutesy beginning, she gets off the pole and calms down. The actors, too, calm the movie.

I recently again saw Reitman’s Thank You for Smoking; both it and Juno are one of a kind. Both are—to use the critical word of the 21st century—smart. “Clunky” but smart.

300 is pretty dumb. But it didn’t bother me as much as it did others. If I were attacked by right-wing bloggers, it would be a different battlefield.

I like Gerard Butler—his Dear Frankie reminds me a bit of Juno. One of the most awful performances of the year was Lena Headey as Queen Gorgo. A Britisher who can’t act.

300 is a frat party.

Eat your vegetables, Josh.

Jeffrey M. Anderson: To wrap up the horror discussion, I don’t agree that horror is played out, any more than any other genre is played out. I had forgotten all about 1408, which I just placed on my list of the year’s best DVDs. That was a pretty damn scary movie. But I think Mark is right in that genres will probably become more and more crossed, like No Country for Old Men, which can be read as a serial killer movie and a Western. As for Zodiac, I appreciate all your efforts to help me join the club, especially Tony and Josh. I think I’m beginning to see it now, even if I still prefer Fight Club. Talk about a movie with a physical response!

Okay, here’s my take on Juno. I found it very enjoyable, and I was impressed that the characters seemed to move beyond cool and quirky and into some genuine emotions. Even the parents became real characters instead of objects of ridicule. I think the general venom that’s being directed at it has to do with its December release and its Oscar buzz. It should have been a small March or April film that would have attracted a small handful of appreciative twentysomethings and then disappeared, much like The Puffy Chair or Wristcutters: A Love Story, both of which I liked.

Geez I hated 300, although I did admire its action choreography. Most movies nowadays shoot action sequences with choppy, fast editing and shaky-cams, which I hate, hate, hate. It’s a sure sign of someone who has no idea how to shoot action, and uses the chaos to cover up the flow. You can simulate chaos onscreen without having to create chaos in the camera as well. As stupid as it was, 300 was clear and brisk. I read a good article in the New York Times around the time it came out. Clint Eastwood’s war-film double bill was dying at the box office, and 300 was making a mint, and the idea was that while Clint was questioning the idea of war and raising difficult discourses, 300 was very simply a good-guys-kick-the-bad-guys’-asses movie with no gray areas or hidden issues. For people tired of hearing about Iraq, it was refreshing. But, good Lord was it dumb.

Here’s another 2007 thread. Was it the year of the musical? I saw a bunch: Colma: The Musical, Once, Hairspray, Sweeney Todd, Across the Universe, Enchanted, etc. I adored Enchanted, and I liked Sweeney Todd, but the thing about all these movies is that I can’t recall the songs, except two: There was one in Enchanted about cleaning that I thought was hilarious, and I was touched by the “Falling Slowly” number in the music store in Once. My thing about musicals is that I prefer the ones that are specifically made for the cinema, not stage plays adapted into movies. For some reason the levels of scale and intimacy are always wrong. (For me, this goes all the way back to beloved classics like West Side Story and The Sound of Music, which I call “bulldozer” movies. Give me 42nd Street, Swing Time and Singin’ in the Rain any day.)

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