Pazar, Aralık 30, 2007

The Best Movie Posters of 2007

I am currently suffering the usual post-Christmas depression - by which I mean that there are far too many great films in theaters, all of them being released at once in anticipation of Oscar campaigns, and all I read in the papers and blogs are Top 10 lists populated with films I haven't seen because they haven't hit Madison, Wisconsin yet. So while I make frequent trips to the movie theater to catch up, here's an easier list to compile, because you don't need to see the film to make a judgment.

A list of the best movie posters of the year is not equivalent to a list of the best films of the year, as is proven by the attractive designs at left and right. But browsing through the IMDB's (approximately) 9,000 films released or produced in 2007, and then clicking on the links to the small percentage that I had actually heard of, I was pleasantly surprised by some really beautiful designs. The following images are antidotes to the Photoshop-nightmare posters that plague most major Hollywood releases, where the only criteria is to cram as many recognizable celebrity faces into the image as possible. (It's also unfortunate that we live in a decade in which poster artists are discouraged from painting original images, instead being prodded toward the less time-consuming task of scanning the actor's faces into a computer.) My preference here was toward simplicity and imagination.

1. Grindhouse

The original Grindhouse poster--before it was divided in two for the individual "Death Proof" and "Planet Terror" DVD releases--was the perfect distillation of a drive-in exploitation double feature bill. It also pits the films against each other like opponents in a prize fight. To the left: Robert Rodriguez's extended John Carpenter homage, placing its key attraction, go-go dancer Rose McGowan with a machine-gun leg, front and center. (Just like in any exploitation art, the most sensationalist element--even if it's a major "spoiler"--must be prominent.) For Quentin Tarantino's slasher film, Stuntman Mike's lethal weapon, his "death proof" stunt car, heads for the viewer at high speed while the eight female leads pose in silhouette against a setting sun. "These 8 women are about to meet 1 diabolical man!" In a typical grindhouse poster, the art would promise more than the actual film delivered. But this double feature actually aimed to live up to its promises--yes, McGowan really does have a machine-gun leg (albeit only in the final act), and she even hurtles through the air while firing rockets from it. Indeed, "two great movies for the price of one!"

2. Vacancy

From Nimród Antal, the director of the cult hit Kontroll (2003), comes this extended homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho. OK, I haven't seen it. But this poster makes me want to: a gorgeous painted image of the prototypical sleazy roadside motel, with the title worked into the only neon which is lit. The stars and credits are worked very naturally into the design, but the eyes are drawn to the gray sky and the ominous-looking letters "M-O-T-E-L." This teaser poster is a much more effective advertisement than the release poster, which simply shows Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale peering around the edge of a latched door--a bland image indistinguishable from any other thriller.

3. Zodiac

David Fincher's critically acclaimed mystery--and genuinely one of the best films of the year, whether or not it's granted an Oscar campaign--has a poster design which, like Vacancy's, prefers to focus on signature architecture instead of attractive actors. As with the eerie motel of Vacancy, this fog-enshrouded Golden Gate Bridge suggests the film's theme: in this case, mystery and obfuscation. As Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey, Jr., pursue the Zodiac killer, they descend into obsession as the truth seems ever out of reach; they're virtually driving into the dense fog which dominates the center of this image. Of course, the stylized logo also calls to mind the one for Fincher's "Se7en" (although it's decidedly less annoying), almost subliminally letting fans of the earlier film know that this is something they'd like.

4. Michael Clayton

This poster actually looks like the cover of a contemporary novel called "The Truth Can Be Adjusted" written by one Michael Clayton, which tells you a couple things: (1) novels these days have first-rate design, and (2) the poster means to sell the film as a classy piece of literature. I like that they've got the confidence to trust that we'll recognize George Clooney's features, even out of focus and hidden behind a giant tagline. I like that the slogan is bigger than the title. I like that the tagline is so Orwellian. I like the strong reds against the indistinct, washed-out background colors. The poster actually tells you very little about what the film's about, but you understand that it's a political thriller starring Clooney, and that sells itself.

5. Youth Without Youth
The rose-themed poster for Love in the Time of the Cholera almost made this cut, but I ultimately found it a little too boring. Then I saw this poster for Francis Ford Coppola's new film, which tops Cholera's in typical Coppola fashion: by piling on more. More roses! More luscious red offset by deep blacks! It's a beautiful design, with the lovers almost like ghosts--appropriate enough for a story about immortality--and the upside-down, mirror-image letters suggesting Cyrillic writing, subconsciously evoking the story's Eastern European setting. I even love that the credits are at an angle in the upper-right corner, somehow complementing the image instead of distracting from it. It's like a Soviet propaganda poster for puppy love.

6. The Hottest State

I love this poster so much that I have it hanging in my basement. It's a good movie, but the poster is better. Here the actors seem lost at the bottom of the image, with the credits and logo pressing them down from above. The emphasis, then, is on the ruddy-red wall, suggesting a cheap apartment or hotel room baking in the heat. While Mark Webber still hasn't gotten dressed, and lounges with a beer (or some stronger drink) and a newspaper, Catalina Sandino Moreno gazes out an unseen window, guitar in hand, either daydreaming, writing a song, or focusing on her goals and dreams. As with the characters in the film, Webber is virtually oblivious to the desires of the woman sitting beside him; although a more representative image might have had him standing outside her window, gazing up with flowers in his hand while she ignores him, this poster is more evocative and interesting.

7. Ocean's Thirteen

Steven Soderbergh's "Ocean's" films have always been style over substance, which is precisely the point. They have the best cast, the best trailers, and the best posters in the business--who cares about the films themselves? Here's another ultra-stylish poster, this one cleverly finding a way to squeeze twelve--not thirteen--of its cast members into the picture by taking a bird's-eye-view. All are grinning up at you, ready to deal cards like the perfect con artists they are. The length of the table even gives the designer a chance to fit in the most prominent names in the film's cast, and the remainder of the credits are (almost illegibly) moved to the edges, framing the image. That just leaves the topper: adding a logo of the fictional 13 of spades, turning the entire image into a playing card.

8. Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Critics dismissed it has high camp, but the poster to Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth (1998) sequel has an effective simplicity. It's also a sharp turn away from the poster to that film, which emphasized grandeur and sinister red hues; this is just the radiant Cate Blanchett, the only hint of royalty being the slight tuft of a white lace collar peeking out from under her shimmering armor. The only background is a tattered flag, suggesting a giant, ravaged battlefield. Doing a lot with very little: apparently not representative of the actual film.

9. The Hills Have Eyes 2

Whatever you might think of the so-called "torture porn" movement in modern horror, they have consistently inspired some of the most striking and original movie posters of the last couple of years. This reviled B-movie--as the sequel to a remake, it's many steps removed from the 1970's Wes Craven classic--may have pluses that only a gorehound can love, but the poster deserves a closer look. The image shows one of the backwater cannibals dragging his prey--tied up in a sack--through the desert. Grid-like lines suggest a much-used map that's been unfolded and spread across a table; or, perhaps, a well-travelled 70's grindhouse movie poster. The center of interest is the battered, naked feet of that poor fellow in the bag, as well as the path left in the sand. Lovely grime, this.

10. I'm Not There

Cate Blanchett dominates another great poster, only this time you wouldn't know it, because in silhouette, with sunglasses and a cigarette, she's a dead ringer for Bob Dylan. And in the middle of that silhouette is the gimmick of the film: a run-down of the eclectic cast with the winking tagline: "...are all Bob Dylan." The only colors are white, gray, and a platinum color which suggests the legend's record sales. Incidentally, since smoking is now enough of a taboo to make it onto MPAA warnings ("rated PG-13 for a scene of smoking," etc.), is this poster suitable for all audiences?

11. Redacted

Brian DePalma's drama is taken from all sorts of media--soldier's home videos, cable news reports--so it's fitting that the poster is a palimpsest with the various media images hidden underneath a text document. That document is a censored report, the title and director of Redacted highlighted in yellow, and the blacked-out letters becoming the background images, suggesting that the pictures are pieces of what the government doesn't want you to see. There's even another layer, in the foreground: the silhouettes of barbed wire and a gun turret. The design might be a little busy, but the effect is almost psychedelic, particularly with the mix of colors. Beneath it all is a less-effective tagline, "Truth is the First Casualty of War," which ham-handedly refers the viewer to De Palma's other film about wartime rape. But it will take a while before your eyes even reach those words.

12. Brand Upon the Brain!

The latest Guy Maddin fever dream evokes a silent film, and indeed played in select cities as one, accompanied by a live orchestra, sound effects, and narration. The official release poster--with the young "Guy Maddin" character hiding in shame behind a door while his sultry sister lounges in lingerie--is very good, but its main purpose is to cram as many critical raves as possible into the image. The promotional art at left, however--printed as a postcard for theaters to give away--may or may not have appeared in full-sized "poster" form, but does a more thorough job of suggesting the hysteria, sexual repression, and humor of the film, as well as its style and methods. It's also more in line with the sensationalist poster art of an earlier era (long before grindhouses). Who in their right mind would turn down a film promising these: "Guy Trysts with Phantom Wendy!", "Strange Holes...in the Orphans' Heads!", "Dead or Alive, It's Back to Work!", and "What's a Suicide Attempt Without a Wedding?!"

13. Across the Universe

It would seem that when creating a promotional image for Julie Taymor's Beatles musical, the temptation would be to cram as many Beatles references and in-jokes into the poster as possible. This designer got it down to three: the "All You Need is Love" tagline, the image of its two lovers contained within a giant strawberry, and the cosmic background which illustrates the title song, Across the Universe. Wisely, the emphasis here is on the love story, and given the film's reported rising popularity among young college females, that's one effective way to get the film to its audience.

Oh, and the font in the title is the Beatles' official font. There's a reference too...

14. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Given a lengthy title like that, I would think the temptation here would be to present it as a newspaper headline, or at least a wanted poster. Instead, the font of the title evokes a 19th-century newspaper, but emphasis is placed on a giant blue sky--just a little dark, with stormclouds on the border. While Brad Pitt's Jesse James looks out at the horizon, his future assassin stands behind him, brooding in a tall black hat that makes him look just a wee bit mysterious. The colors are slightly bleached, but still seem to shimmer and glow. It would be a crime if the poster didn't advertise this film's breathtaking landscapes, and it does, but with dollops of menace.

15. King Corn

A classy 1950's silkscreened print that just happens to be a custom-made movie poster. To sell this documentary on the corn industry, naturally a critical rave is given prominence, plus a catchy tagline, but I dig that all the art is hand-drawn, and that the stalk of corn in the background looms like some atom-age monster about to crush those poor bastards on the truck. Also a good use of fluorescent green, a color that doesn't appear in advertising very much, perhaps because it evokes nuclear fallout. This designer embraces all of its toxic connotations.

16. Hostel: Part II

Whether you love or hate Eli Roth, the satirical-minded horror director often credited for launching the new "torture porn" movement, his poster for the first Hostel--the single image of an inexplicable claw-like tool intended for the use of God-knows-what--quickly became iconographic. There were a few posters created for his follow-up, but the one at left is the best: a ponytailed girl suspended naked and upside-down, with--water? snot?--about to drop from her nose. Sure, by now he's just flaunting those accusations of misogyny, but those accusations matter little to the teenage girls and guys who love these films. This poster is a coded message to that audience: your parents will hate this, and you will love it.

17. Margot at the Wedding

Noah Baumbach's latest domestic satire has a poster which is almost bleached white with its bright sky and diffuse colors, but Margot (Nicole Kidman) proudly proclaims that she's the title character by wearing a striking pink hat, color-coded to match her name several inches above. She's also looking determinedly in the opposite direction of everyone else, asserting her individuality. Again: simple, elegant design.

18. Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

A smart evoking of some logo-driven posters of the 50's and 60's, including Anatomy of a Murder and The Man with the Golden Arm. Of course, the film could be about anything--a sequel to The Devil Wears Prada, perhaps, or a sequel to The Witches of Eastwick--but it's so confident and cool that you'll be drawn into the theater anyway.

19. The Golden Compass

For a big-budget franchise picture like The Golden Compass, you can imagine that plenty of promotional art and posters were created and used. This is the best of them, which manages to depict the spectacular while keeping the image uncluttered and easy on the eyes. What I find appealing is not necessarily that there's a big armored polar bear growling at something outside the frame, but that his bulk and ferocity are contrasted with the young girl, virtually nestled in his paw, who is calmly looking upward (just slightly awe-struck) while holding the glowing compass in her hand. Everything that a fantasy movie poster should be.

20. My Kid Could Paint That

The poster reads, "She's four years old. Her paintings sell for $25,000." The girl holds the paint brush as though it were a broom, looking at the camera with perfect innocence--despite the fact that the line below the title is: "American dream or art world scheme?" The conundrum of the documentary is functionally stated, but the design is still very attractive, with the girl's painting as the bulk of the poster, and she standing before it, essentially becoming part and parcel of the subject--an abstract made into a portrait.

Perşembe, Aralık 06, 2007

Catching Up on Blizzard Days

When you get snowed in every couple of days, and you live across the street from a video store, you end up watching lots of movies. Here are some I'm "late" reviewing.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters (U.S., 2007) * *
D: Matt Maiellaro & Dave Willis

Before you fans attack me for the two-star review, let it be known that I am one of the original fans of Aqua Teen Hunger Force, although I haven't watched it in a few years. I used to look forward to the block of late-night Cartoon Network programming called Adult Swim, which, amidst reruns of Space Ghost Coast to Coast, would feature Harvey Birdman: Attorney at Law, Sealab 2021, The Brak Show, and the Aqua Teens, all of which fused supremely poor animation with non sequitur, quasi-hallucinogenic comedy. Adult Swim continues, expanded and more popular than ever, but for me watching the inevitable feature-length film based on ATHF was an act of nostalgia. (I always preferred the early days of Adult Swim, with lots of recycled Hanna-Barbera animation, and, God, those brilliant early episodes of Harvey Birdman, and the Captain Murphy era of Sealab...but anyway.) For about half an hour, I was enjoying the hell out of the Aqua Teen movie. There's a great parody of "Let's Go Out to the Lobby" which opens the film, and typically bizarre humor involving ancient Egypt, Abraham Lincoln, and a legendary exercise machine. It might take the non-initiated quite a while to figure out that the humor isn't supposed to make sense; the more dizzying the momentum, the more irrelevant the digressions, the better. But the movie drags on to 80 minutes, and it's important to remember that the Adult Swim version lasted no longer than 12 minutes. Those shorts were euphoric bursts of mayhem, followed by commercials, followed by another inexplicable program. To drag out this brand of comedy to feature length is fatal. And I'm surprised by that. I found myself thinking of the Mr. Show feature film spin-off Run Ronnie Run, in which David Cross and Bob Odenkirk took Ronnie Dobbs, just one of the hundreds of characters on their brilliant HBO sketch show, and developed his personality over a straight-faced plotline with very few irreverent digressions. Their approach had its logic: it's difficult to write a sketch-comedy movie that can sustain interest for 90 minutes, and even the Pythons hammered out plotlines for Holy Grail and Life of Brian. But with Run Ronnie Run you felt that they were taking their plot too seriously. The audience couldn't care that deeply for a one-joke character. They needed more digressions, like the profane, Jack Black-led Mary Poppins parody which is that film's high point. On the other hand, the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie proves that if you have no plotline (well, a very insubstantial one), you can fall off the other edge of the cliff. The film's just a chore. But I suspect that if you chop it up into 12-minute segments, and watch it one day at a time, it will be restored to full hilarity. This may take some surgery, but I think we can save the patient.

Knocked Up (U.S., 2007) * * *
D: Judd Apatow

Much was made by the press that the summer of 2007 would be the season--if not the year--of Judd Apatow, who already had a major hit in 2005 with The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and was now releasing Knocked Up, which he directed, and Superbad, which he produced with Knocked Up's star, Seth Rogen, co-writing. It was, I suppose--as much as these things matter (which they don't; I don't think audiences were screaming, "It's the summer of Apatow!" while leaving the theater). Both films--smart, crude, sarcastic, and funny--were hits. I don't even know why I'm going through all this with you. You already know everything you need to know about Judd Apatow, and you've seen Knocked Up, most assuredly before I did, and you've come to your opinion. Still, let me tell you the plot: unemployed stoner Ben (Rogen), on an extraordinarily good night, flirts successfully with entertainment news host Alison (Katherine Heigl), and sleeps with her. Because of some bedroom confusion, he didn't wear a condom, and several weeks later she learns she's pregnant; unexpectedly, she decides to get to know Ben better rather than ditching him entirely, which leads to dating, love, etc. If the plot is conventional, the execution is not. Apatow is a master of populating his comedies with convincingly human characters. Ben seems real, perhaps because he's modeled so closely upon Rogen himself. Certainly Alison's sister, Debbie (Apatow's wife, Leslie Mann), convinces--I have a friend exactly like her--as well as her husband, Pete (Paul Rudd, behaving like Paul Rudd). All of these actors are excellent, including Heigl, although it is very difficult to believe that she'd fall in love with Ben so quickly. In fact, it almost seems like a crucial scene is missing: a moment when Ben sacrifices something for her, so that she can see his commitment, and thus see him for more than he'd presented. That scene, actually, comes at the very end of the film, but long before then she's confessed her love, and they've pursued an active sexual relationship. (This leads to a wonderful little scene in which Ben, deathly afraid of harming the unborn baby, tries to find the safest sexual position.) Anyway, it's an obvious flaw that somehow doesn't seem that important, since the film is so consistently funny, the characters so likable. You want to hang out with Apatow's friends, in Apatow's universe. Yes, if only it were always the summer of Apatow.

Tekkonkinkreet (Japan, 2006) * * 1/2
D: Michael Arias

Regular readers of this blog know that I'm a rabid fan of original, boundary-stretching animation. What I like most about Michael Arias' Tekkonkinkreet (original name Tekon kinkurîto, which I presume is pronounced "Tom Tancredo") is that it does not resemble any other Japanese anime ever made. The characters don't have the oversized, expressive features typical of anime and manga, but diminutive eyes placed just a little too far apart; though admittedly, their mouths stretch as wide as any Sailor Moon, and the central characters, "Black" and "White"--two kids who preposterously are the ganglords ruling over a Japanese district called "Treasure Town"--sail through the air and land from great heights with little apparent damage. They are our escorts through this bizarre metropolis, a landscape of lavishly detailed painted backgrounds. There's an elevated train, a clocktower with an animatronic Ganesh, and countless blocks of seedy movie theaters. Pursuing the two boys--the younger of whom is nearly autistic--is a new gang-boss, who controls superhuman warriors who may or may not be extraterrestrial. Just when this disproportionate gang battle begins to heat up, little White is severely injured and taken out of Black's custody and into a home where he begins to furiously sketch out crayon visions, most curiously of some evil entity he calls the Minotaur. Whatever the film means in concrete terms escapes me completely--and this is coming from someone who claims to understand Akira. Obviously the film is ultimately about loyalty and friendship, and on a basic level it works--and the action scenes are exciting. But the climax is a bit of a puzzle, and there's a long lull leading up to it which is genuinely morose (and curious). American FX wizard Arias' first film is successful as an experiment in style, not storytelling. I'm anxious to see what he does next.

Letters to the Editor: Is MST3K Cynical? Am I Cynical?

I don't get emails regarding Kill the Snark that often, but when I do (when someone does stumble across this corner of the blog-iverse, and wants to say something about it), they're usually pretty interesting. Here are two emails about snarkiness and cynicism--one thoughtful and complimentary, the other not-so-complimentary and from a filmmaker whose work I reviewed in probably the most mean-spirited piece I've ever written.

* * *
Hello Jeff,

I was directed to your recent piece on Mystery Science Theater 3000 by MST3KINFO.com. I really liked the article, to the point of taking notes on it as I made my way through, preparing myself for a good, thoughtful comment on your blog. Then, to my surprise, there was no comments section to be found. (A blogger who doesn't crave praise and attention? What?) So, still wanting to get these thoughts off of my chest, I'm writing you this email instead.

I really liked the article. I often find that people look at me funny when I insist to them that MST3K warrants this amount of thought. But what's really funny was how absolutely opposite my views of the show were from yours. I had actually held the show up as my shining example of how great UNcynical and UNironic humor can be. My views on humor seem very much in line with yours- I find that most people use humor in a negative way, for reasons I don't even care to get into. But I had always seen Mystery Science Theater as the antithesis of this. Just look at the sketches. Have you ever seen a group of guys (Midwestern to the core) more genuine and unassuming in your life? I love how unapologetically goofy they are. They're happy and love life. And, unlike most people, aren't afraid to show it.

BUT- There was always that nagging feeling in my the back of my mind... Isn't what these guys are doing, making fun of other people's art, kind of mean, cruel and... ironic by it's very nature? I came closest to actually realizing this concept when I read about how Joe Don Baker said he would punch the cast if he ever saw them, after hearing what they said about him during their episode featuring the film "Mitchell". (Why does it always seem to be the case that MST3K's most deplorable moments are also their funniest?)

Now that your article has clearly laid this out for me (Thank you so much), I find myself trying to reconcile this idea in my head. And I think I've come up with something fairly significant, or worth exploring anyway. MST3K should have also assaulted good movies. They should have given the same treatment to work they actually enjoyed. You can't tell me that you wouldn't sit through the entire three hours of Joel and the 'bots ripping through Seven Samurai. (Ignore the fact that they could never have gotten the rights to do this- we're waxing philosophically here.) I don't think it would be any more difficult for them to write, and I think the results could be just as funny. This type of indiscriminate assault on their part would have eliminated the "mean" aspect of that they were doing. It would have changed where they were coming from completely. In fact, just thinking about how well it would have worked almost makes me feel better about the reality of what they did.

That's what I have to say about your lovely article. You can take it as praise, or let me know what you think.

Thanks again.
* * *

I stumbled upon your old take on my Q&A at Ebert's '06 festival, and my film "Duane Hopwood" and was struck by how... cynical it was. And how dismissive, of the film, the performances, and me. I'm also an actor and I'm used to criticism, but I wonder, just what your qualifications are to arrive at these conclusions. Are you a professional critic? Are you a a trained writer? A published writer? A professional in the arts? If you'd been at the Q&A with Ebert the day before, you'd have heard him call Schwimmer's performance "Academy Award caliber." He also went on to list the film as one of the "best of 2005." This from the most influential and (arguably) most respected film critic in the world, as opposed to...you.

Happy Holidays
Matt Mulhern

* * *

Thoughts of your own - on cynicism, cynical criticism, or my own measly, unqualified ideas? (Hey, I've got a Masters in Writing - does that make my opinion worth more or less, and if so, by how much, percentage-wise?) Write me here, and I may post them in a future Letters to the Editor column.