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Big Fan (d. Robert Siegel) - I had very high hopes for this, coming as it does from the pen and director's chair of Robert Siegel, best known for writing The Wrestler, one of the very best films of 2008. And its subject matter -- a study of a particular kind of obsessed sports fan, and the dark places his obsession and social awkwardness take him -- was something I hadn't quite seen portrayed, or at least focused on, before. And I had a feeling that its lead actor, comedian and heretofore unproven dramatic actor Patton Oswalt, could, if he had any real acting chops at all, knock this role out of the park (to borrow a sports metaphor from a sport other than the one his character is obsessed with). And the film isn't bad. Oswalt is very good, and ultimately I did have a lot of affection for this wreck of a person and the outrageous lengths he'll go to preserve what he incorrectly regards as his personal dignity. The film's major problem is that it's too plotted. And it's not even all that plotted -- there are really only two major turns in the story -- but I think I would have preferred a day-in-the-life approach to this kind of character, than the unlikely, though not implausible, series of events we get.
Moon (d. Duncan Jones) -I never realize how badly I miss big-screen takes on genuine science fiction themes and ideas until I actually see a new one. David Bowie's son's first film may wear some of its influences too prominently on its sleeve (Silent Running, for instance, and, most blatantly, 2001: A Space Odyssey), but Moon is not doing the same thing as those films, just nodding at them. Sam Rockwell, in what is essentially a one-man show, is superb as Sam Bell, an astronaut who is based on the moon, mining something-or-other, when he has an accident a couple of weeks before his three-year contract is up, and he's sent back home to his wife and child. When he wakes up in the infirmary (cared for by HAL 9000 stand-in Gerty, voiced by Kevin Spacey), however, he's forced to ask "Who's that other guy?" Gripping, sad, thoughtful, eerie, and pretty wonderful.
In the Loop (d. Armando Ianucci) - It was funny. I don't deny that. But I have a hard time giving full credit to a film that is unambiguously a fiction, but asks us to credit it for being insightful satire. And it may be insightful up to a point, but the satirical absurdity of the last third doesn't cut to the bone, because it's fiction, so...maybe my problem is more with satire than this particular film. Anyway, it's brilliantly acted, and personally I preferred Tom Hollander's uneasy deadpan to Peter Capaldi's relentless profanity, entertaining though that was.
Halloween II (d. Rob Zombie) - Rob Zombie's serious movie. Halloween II (a remake of a sequel that I haven't seen) is positively aching to be embraced by the same kind of arthouse crowd that put Tobe Hooper's original Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the MoMA all those years ago. The difference is, Hooper wasn't aiming for that -- he only got there because the film he made was so singular. Zombie's not-even-armchair psychonalaysis of his serial killer is also the polar opposite of what made not only Hooper's film, but Carpenter's original Halloween, so chilling. Explanations are for simpletons, and it's frankly beyond me why Zombie is convinced the opposite is true. And yes, I did see the director's cut, which I've been hearing has an added richness so overwhelming as to make the theatrical version look like House of 1000 Corpses. Which I suppose is entirely possible, but so what? The last shot is kind of creepy, though.
The Hurt Locker (d. Kathryn Bigelow) - Bigelow's Iraq War masterpiece really is as apolitical as everyone says (although I suspect there's enough covert cynicism about military brass, etc., in the film for certain kinds of interpretation to take hold), and focuses on the men who defuse roadside, and other, bombs, and how the adrenaline that's generated from such work can be addictive, and cause some men to become reckless. The Hurt Locker is relentlessly intense, and almost never steps wrong -- the one or two times it did are so minor that I don't think they're worth bringing up. The masterpiece within this masterpiece is an extended sniper duel in the middle of the desert. Brilliant.
The Roost (d. Ti West) - On the surface, this film wouldn't seem to merit more words written about it than, say, The Hurt Locker, but as it happens I have more to say about it. Ti West's most recent film, The House of the Devil, is getting quite a bit of play on-line, and is being hailed as, if not a great horror film, than at least a pretty darn good one. A lot of people are pleased by that film's 1980s horror throwback qualities, which is to say that it's a no-frills, solid, spooky piece of work, with a nice mood and some good jumps. That's what a lot of people are saying about it, and, in fact, I liked it pretty well myself, largely because the set-up was so engaging, and Tom Noonan's too-brief supporting performance is, I think, sensational. The payoff to that set-up, and to Noonan's strange and oddly sympathetic (until we reach the end, anyway) character is less satisfying, but at least it has its moments, and also weren't 1980s horror films a lot of fun? Yes, some of them were, though if I were to pick a decade's worth of horror films that I wanted my modern horror films to emulate, it wouldn't be that one. In general, though, I'd prefer far less of this, period. The same could probably be said of most genres, but horror is the genre whose practitioners most believe that to look forward is to look back, and to make sure you know that they know that they're looking back. Not in terms of influence, but rather of insularity.
Still, why look a gift horse in the mouth? The House of the Devil is pretty good, and let us all be satisfied with that. And I am. I've even defended the film to a friend who liked it somewhat less than I did. But one look at Ti West's previous film, The Roost, and I'm forced to ask "Why are so many horror fans so easy to please?" This is a question I've asked repeatedly, and I'm no closer to an answer now than I was any of the previous times I've asked, but The Roost got quite a bit of good press itself, at least from genre outlets (Fangoria and the like), and I'm becoming more and more convinced that if horror fans fear anything, it's change. The Roost, you see, is also a throwback, an even more self-conscious one than The House of the Devil. Tom Noonan is also in this one, though in a smaller role, this time as one of those fake TV creature-feature hosts that a lot horror filmmakers like to toss into the pot, so that the audience knows what kind of horror movies they watched growing up. Noonan's character is ostensibly introducing The Roost to us, and coming in here and there in the middle of the action to comment on it. At one point, he even pulls a Haneke, and rewinds the film so that the characters can behave differently (with no impact to the story that I could tell, but I was losing focus on the film by that point, so maybe I missed something).
In other words, West doesn't think any of this matters. And he's actually right about that, because the main story of The Roost -- four friends find themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere and are attacked by bats that turn them into zombies -- isn't worth a hoot, though, in all honesty, it might have been worth at least a minor hoot if West hadn't been so busy laughing up his sleeve. What matters to West, at least in The Roost, is making his film feel like it wasn't made when he made it, and I'll be damned if I can figure out why that's supposed to matter to me. I'll admit that sort of thing can be amusing, but it's a pretty thin kind of amusement, even when done well, and in The Roost it isn't done well. The film image is covered in an artificial grain that reminded me of all those fake films-within-a-film, shot specifically so that characters can be shown watching them, and the filmmakers won't have to pay to use images from real movies. On top of that, West uses technology and effects that wouldn't have been available in the 80s, or the 70s, or whenever he wants us to think The Roost was made. As a result, the whole affair comes off as utterly phony and insincere, which is probably A-OK with West.