13 July 2011

Viewing Journal: Week of 11-17 Jul

LEST YOU BE CONFUSED: Films in /brackets/ I had previously seen. The ratings are on a 100-point scale that merely signifies my personal and highly subjective degree of enthusiasm, and I use the entire damn scale, e.g. 65 is equivalent to 6.5/10, a mild thumbs-up. Anything 70+ I really liked, and 80+ is generally top ten for any given non-phenomenal year.

/Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas/ (1998, Terry Gilliam): 47

Give Gilliam credit for doing something different—Rango arguably looks more human and less cartoonish than Depp does here. But that bowlegged walk and reptilian head twitch are only amusing for so long. The film's fatal mistake, I think, is including Thompson's justly celebrated "wave speech," which provides an abrupt indication of what's missing from this episodic grab bag of buffoonish drug-induced hijinx; it's almost impossible to reconcile the perceptive, fiercely intelligent mind that wrote that passage with the collection of superficial tics holding court onscreen. (Also problematic is the late scene in the diner, to which Ellen Barkin brings more genuine pain than this movie can handle—watch how quickly it reverts to zany form afterwards, even with just a few minutes left to go.) In a weird way, and despite its hallucinogenic outrageousness, Fear and Loathing suffers from exactly the same problem as your standard Great Author biopic, in that it's forced to ignore what actually makes its subject worthy of our notice in favor of more gossip-worthy personal anecdotes. In theory, I can understand why Hunter S. Thompson coked to the gills with a giant lizard tail strapped to his ass might have seemed more potentially diverting than, say, Becoming Jane, but in practice you can still feel the vacuum created by the absence of the author's actual work, around which all these cute but fundamentally irrelevant capers swirl like so many dead leaves. Gilliam's task was to find a visual correlative for Thompson's unique voice, which is all that makes his exploits interesting; instead, he's determined to find a visual correlative for an acid trip, which zzzzzz. Bits and pieces delight (I especially enjoy Del Toro prefacing every lunatic suggestion with "As your attorney..."), but the monotony kicks in early and never really diminishes.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011, David Yates): 51

Nearly 20 hours, all told, and yet this series never even remotely managed to make me give a damn about anything or (crucially) anybody in it. Both the conclusion of the narrative proper and the 19-years-later epilogue are amazingly flat, almost perfunctory; even the sacrifice of countless supporting characters and extras on his behalf only makes Harry bow his head respectfully as the trio walk away from the ruins of Hogwarts. (He's the most boring hero imaginable, not tempted even for an instant by the Elder Wand's power. Also, he'll have to die....unless, y'know, he'd rather not. In that case never mind.) Like Part 1, this final installment is super-heavy on plot, and the number of callbacks to earlier films that sailed right over my head could fill half of a spiral notebook—indeed, I failed to recognize (e.g.) Neville when he appeared, even though now that I check I see he's been played by the same actor since Philoceror's Stone [sic] and has figured at least semi-prominently in previous adventures. He just made no impression. Very little has. I did briefly get excited when Hermione disguised herself as Belletrix, since Helena Bonham Carter has always seemed to be having way more fun than anybody else (with the possible exception of Branagh during his stint), but that mild charge was predictably short-lived. And of course there's no time in the endgame for the whole burgeoning-puberty aspect that made Half-Blood Prince the series standout—gotta retrieve the next horshack in the Room of Plot Devices I've Completely Forgotten, Sorry, I Can See You Expect Me To Remember. Some impressive special effects, the usual solid work from British cinema's Who's Who (nice of Emma Thompson to stop by for literally three seconds of silent screen time), but I spent nearly an entire day of my life watching this saga, and while I wouldn't call the T-shirt lousy, it's pretty darn threadbare.

Hospitalité (2010, Koji Fukada): 49

(Pedigree: Tokyo '10; ND/NF.)

Terminally mild stranger-liberates-uptight-household comedy, Japanese division. Seemed to be going somewhere interesting with the introduction of the white chick, who variously claims to be Brazilian or Bosnian but speaks note-perfect English; indeed, I found several reviews touting the film as a sly indictment of the country's xenophobia, which does seem to be what was intended, at least in part. But just as multiple excuses tend to cancel each other out—my dog ate my homework and my computer crashed—it's hard to fault this beleaguered family for being masochistically polite and accommodating and for muttering quietly that the gaijin who's hanging out topless on their balcony and systematically undermining Mom's efforts to bond with her stepdaughter (via English lessons) "doesn't fit in." Still, I'd be less concerned about subtext were the film funnier, or at least more inventive; events slowly escalate but are neither realistic enough to be cutting nor outrageous enough to bust guts. Missed opportunities abound, especially with regard to the primary set—Fukada comes from a theater background (this is a stage adaptation, pretty obviously), and while he has an eye
for individual compositions in the serene Ozu mold, he fails to assemble the house's architecture in your mind, whereas this brand of comedy really demands that the viewer be able to draw a detailed map. But maybe I'm just not intellectual enough to appreciate this film, since I literally cannot parse the final sentence of this glowing review: "A malleable intensive on the fragility of conformity, Hospitalité carries its own termless relevancy, making any dubious metaphors or moments of symbolism at once constantly tempting and totally useless." Anyone? Or is it just you get what you don't pay for?

The Trip (2010, Michael Winterbottom): 59

Here's a case where deliberately blurring the line between fiction and nonfiction proves counterproductive. Coogan and Brydon as "themselves" works fine when they're just riffing on pop culture and poking each other's ostensible sore spots; to paraphrase Steve's Michael Caine, when this movie gets FUNNY, it gets VERY FUNNY INDEED. Trouble is, it also wants us to care about these two guys, as if they were characters in a drama. And I'm just way too conscious that I'm looking at "Steve Coogan" to get all weepy when he has awkward phone conversations with "Steve Coogan's semi-estranged girlfriend" or mopes around "Steve Coogan's enormous but pitifully empty high-rise apartment." (Note that the scare quotes are appropriate even if that really is his girlfriend and his apartment, which I have no idea if they are; doesn't matter.) There's a sort of uncanny-valley effect at work in situations like this: You can't suspend disbelief, as you would were the actor clearly playing a role (even when the role echoes the actor's offscreen persona, e.g. Jerry Lewis in King of Comedy), but neither can you believe that you're seeing even semi-mediated reality, as you might in a documentary portrait. Consequently, bids for pathos just get the < bullshit > cough. (Intrusive woe-is-me score doesn't help, either, and only confirms my sense of Winterbottom as a ham-fisted hack—I'm 1-for-10 with this dude, with only 24 Hour Party People firmly in the plus column.) What The Trip does best, in keeping with its title, is capture the goofy verbal jam sessions that longtime friends inevitably have when stuck in a car for hours on end; some of the bits here (I'm thinking in particular of "Come, come, Mr. Bond" and "Gentlemen, to bed!") work so well in part because they continue long past the point where any self-respecting writer would call it quits, simply because there's nothing to do except exhaust every conceivable permutation of a stupid idea. Well, and because "Steve Coogan" and "Rob Brydon" are just as hilarious as Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon.

Damnation Alley (1977, Jack Smight): 46

Strong contender for the junkiest-looking big-budget movie of all time—$64 million in today's money (significantly more than Star Wars cost) somehow bought nothing but cheesy sub-Photoshop opticals, a Planetarium laser-light show in the sky, and swarms of killer mutant cockroaches that are clearly just mats of rubber bug shapes being pulled across the ground on strings. And yet somehow it's not that painful, in part because it seems so pleasurably relaxed compared to its contemporary successors. Prologue sets the tone, depicting nuclear annihilation with such spookily clinical detachment (save for some silent grimacing by Murray Hamilton, mysteriously unbilled) that you just kinda shrug your shoulders and conclude nothing much is at stake—a supposition confirmed when the only people left alive turn out to be Jan-Michael Vincent, George Peppard, Paul Winfield, Dominique Sanda, and Jackie Earle Haley. (Not sure how they missed Keenan Wynn.) What follows isn't so much harrowing post-apocalyptic adventure as genial acid-tinged road trip, with Peppard and Vincent sniping at each other sitcom style and Ms. Sanda looking quite content to serve as irrelevant eye candy. It's a bad movie, to be sure, but at least it's not aggressively bad; jotting it down more than phoning it in, Smight (Harper, Airport '75, and numerous other minor studio flicks I haven't yet seen) appears to be a consummate if uninspired pro, somebody with enough self-confidence not to be pushy or desperate. Those are negative virtues, but there's still something refreshing about them, especially on a day when I'm staring at banner ads for the forthcoming Guy Ritchie Holmes sequel. Just because you're in the mood for trash doesn't mean you want to be pelted by it.

Gromozeka (2011, Vladimir Kott): W/O

(Pedigree: Rotterdam '11; ND/NF.)

So let's see, we've got three middle-aged Russian sad sacks here. One can't bring himself to leave his wife, and wishes his lover would stop pestering him to cut the cord. Another is aghast to discover that his own wife is having an affair, the bitch. And the third decides to get his beloved daughter out of the porn biz by having her physically mutilated. Can you say progressive? Checked some reviews after stopping at my standard walkout point, just to make sure I wasn't missing some wildly subversive element, but apparently not: "Women are cuckolds, frigid or whores...while men are pummeled by fate" (Variety). Formally competent, for what that's worth—very little, I would argue.

/Naked/ (1993, Mike Leigh): 96

Nonstop dazzling, both as logorrheic assault ("I sent off for one of those little Linguaphone packages, 'Talk Shite in a Fortnight.' It's all going very well. I haven't quite got the hang of the transitive verbs yet...") and as a stygian tour of London's underclass, with its infinite manifestations of sodden misery. Thewlis placed second in the Skandies poll for best performance of the '90s, and was robbed; there's never been a more incisive portrait of scabrous wit as defense mechanism, which is to say that no other actor has ever achieved such a sustained simultaneous peak of exhilaration | valley of depression. It's like watching an Olympic diver perform a double somersault tuck into the Grand Canyon. Minor speedbump for me has always been Jeremy/Sebastian, and Cruttwell still strikes me as overly cartoonish in a way that makes the character's viciousness too easy to dismiss. But now that I've watched Leigh stumble into implicit didacticism—first with Happy-Go-Lucky, and then even more egregiously with Another Year—I can see that he intends Jeremy/Sebastian (the dual identity is significant) not as a means of making Johnny seem more palatable by comparison, as I'd feared, but as an illustration of what Johnny would look like stripped of such mollifying attributes as intelligence, humor and poverty. (Which is still a tad scold-y, but it doesn't overwhelm this film the way it does his recent work.) As with most masterpieces, there are moments here that wreck me for reasons I can't remotely articulate—most powerful this time around were the movie's final words, though I never realized until now that they are its final words. Sandra the nurse, fluttering about, chronically incapable of finishing a sentence, struggling to cope with the mess she's just returned to. "Enough. I've had...enough. It comes at me...from all angles. You. All of you just... It's the tin lids. When... How will the world...ever...?" And then Johnny's typically cheeky suggestion—"End?"—and the unexpected intensity with which this minor character, introduced only a few minutes earlier, exclaims "YES!" In this film of endless jabber, it's the last thing anyone says.


cstults said...

yes I said yes I will Yes

Kza said...

"...swarms of killer mutant cockroaches that are clearly just mats of rubber bug shapes being pulled across the ground on strings..."

Jesus, really? I've always given this film partial credit for my phobia, and apparently for no good reason. (Other than I was 5 at the time.)

md'a said...

If you were to watch this movie again now , you would laugh and laugh and laugh. Although there are disgusting close-ups of real enormous roaches (which in real life are harmless). It's just the attacking swarms in long shots that move like they're being dragged on a sheet en masse.

Brian said...

The emotional element of THE TRIP (and the rest of it, for that matter) works much better in the unexpurgated miniseries. Given that it was never really destined for box office glory in the U.S., I'm not sure why the distributor didn't just include the full three hours for theatrical release. It bugs me that people are judging this based on a hacked-up version. My favorite "movie" of the year, though not in its "movie" form -- a bizarre asterisk.

md'a said...

Given the nature of my objection, I'm skeptical that adding another hour would make any difference (and I must say it seemed overlong even at two hours, though of course it was designed to be watched in 30-min. chunks). I did consider watching the miniseries instead, but (a) that seemed problematic in terms of year-end polls and whatnot, and (b) the film actually premiered first, which complicates the question of which is the "true" version.

Slayton said...

This is in my all-time Top 10... I'm really happy that you had the same response to Claire Skinner's scene as I did. I was loving the film up to that point, but the convergence of humourous & dark tones in that final scene, with Skinner's flighty but steely presence, cemented that film's appeal for me and really made its acid view of the 90s city life whole.