14 December 2011

Viewing Journal: Week of 12-18 December

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.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011, Todd Strauss-Schulson): 65

And boom. Far more knowing and inventive right from the jump—if not for the timing (quick Google research indicates the script was completed by January 2010), I'd swear it was heavily influenced by Community, with which it shares a freewheeling, anything-goes casual surrealism. Some of the material remains too juvenile for my taste (coked-up baby, Christmas Story homage), and the whole subplot involving Elias Koteas' gangster Dad completely fizzles (apart from the headline collage that introduces him). But in the plus column: (1) solid premise, with Harold and Kumar no longer friends at the outset, forced by circumstance to find a middle ground between corporate douche and loser burnout; (2) utter contempt for the 3-D craze, best exemplified by the moment when you're suddenly ducking Danny Trejo's hypothetical tree-delight splooge; (3) racial satire that's actually funny as well as pointed, like the tree salesmen who take turns playing Good Nigga Bad Nigga; (4) numerous Community-style detours into random goofiness—most notably the Claymation interlude, with its catchy tune "It's a Very Jolly Day (For You to Die)," but also stuff like the flashback to Trejo's childhood memory of his mother being killed by a Korean gang, all of which is handled with terrific panache by Strauss-Schulson (they finally found a bona-fide comedy director); (5) flat-out insanity, viz. WaffleBot ("Has this ever happened to you? Or this?"); (6) by far the best use of "Neil Patrick Harris" to date, pivoting expertly (and with some genuinely disturbing undertones; Harris is just fearless) on public knowledge of his homosexuality and his long-time relationship with David Burtka; (7) etc. Sorry for the laundry list, but I'm not exaggerating in the least when I tell you that I laughed more in the first five minutes of this one than in the entirety of the other two combined. Modest potential finally achieved.

Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (2008, Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg): 43

Ye gods. Even more theoretically admirable than its predecessor, but now the racial material is so pointed that it almost bypasses comedy, to the point where you feel actively lectured. Ed Helms as the translator who can't understand Korean-Americans speaking word-perfect English, for example, pushes the idea of willful xenophobia too far, so that it's no longer rooted in our everyday experience; the joke would have worked better had Harold's parents deviated at least a little bit from correct syntax, or spoken with a slight but perfectly comprehensible accent, but that might have made (self-aware) white viewers a tad uncomfortable, so unleash the cartoon buffoons with whom nobody can vaguely identify! See also Guantanamo Bay with its cockmeat sandwiches, George W. Bush as a secret pothead, etc. Less gross-out material this time, thankfully, and Neil Patrick Harris, now a TV star again (his appearance in White Castle having amounted to an audition for Barney Stinson), gets a lot more to do, along with an exit that would have been awesome had they actually stuck with it. (I sat through the end credits knowing there was gonna be some sort of NPH tag, and sure enough. Though partially that's because he's in the ads for the current one.) Subplot about Kumar's ex- belongs in some Sandra Bullock romcom, but I was at least mildly touched by the math poem, if only because I instinctively knew that came from somebody's actual life—no screenwriter could possibly have invented it. As with Paranormal Activity, 0-for-2 so far; you fuckers better be right (again) about Volume III...

\Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle\ (2004, Danny Leiner): 47

Rarely seen \backslashes\ signify a film that previously got a W/O, but to which I felt compelled to give a second chance—in this case, because response to 3-D Christmas has been uniformly positive (even from some people who hated the first two), and because I'm just too stupidly anal-retentive to skip installments in a series. Relieved to find that "Battleshits" was the gross-out nadir, but this is still at best very sporadically funny to my taste, with too many jokes that are juvenile, random or both; even the Neil Patrick Harris cameo (which I didn't get to the first time) amounts to little more than "ha ha he said pussy and trim." Which is a shame, because I love the idea of Harold and Kumar—actually saw a press screening in April 2004, three months before the film was released and well before there was any buzz, having gotten excited about it strictly on the basis of its cast and title. Cho and Penn have an easy, squabbling chemistry in the venerable Cheech and Chong tradition, and I can readily imagine enjoying a movie about their adventures that doesn't pander to current notions of "extreme" comedy. (Ironically, one of the film's best running gags involves a group of idiot frat guys who proclaim everything extreme, at one point inhaling an entire bag of Doritos with that word on the package as if it were Tony Montana's mountain of cocaine.) Just so long as they kept the subtext about assimilation, outsider status and racial stereotypes relatively light, as it is here...

/Gimme Shelter/ (1970, David Maysles & Albert Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin): 56

Starts off in an intriguing reflexive mode, repeatedly cutting to Jagger and Watts watching the film we're seeing on a Steenbeck...except nothing ever actually comes of this device, apart from a weird, vaguely demonic freeze-frame on Jagger's face when he finally goes to leave, the import of which I'm afraid is lost on me. And the whole doc-within-a-doc thing gets abandoned almost entirely once the movie arrives at Altamont, whereupon it becomes almost indistinguishable from Woodstock for a long stretch. (People who claim Gimme Shelter is the ugly flip side of Woodstock apparently haven't seen the latter in a long time.) Ultimately, rather than a probing social document fashioned from what was meant to be a concert film, it's an ordinary concert film savvy enough to capitalize (albeit not very well) on some unruly shit that happened to go down; that the filmmakers withhold the stabbing until the last few minutes and then promptly wrap things up is just inconceivable to me. Maybe it's a Direct Cinema problem—what's missing here is a compelling point of view, a sense that the material has been shaped to some overall purpose. (Which, again, is truly bizarre given the Steenbeck interludes, which would seem to be providing precisely that function, but do not.) Fortunately, the concert footage itself is outstanding, though the Stones get their thunder roundly stolen by Ike and Tina at Madison Square Garden. And seriously, is it just me or does Keith Richard play every single classic riff in the wrong key onstage? (I assumed this was age-related in Shine a Light, but he's clearly been doing it all along.) I never recognize the damn songs until Mick starts singing.

/if..../ (1968, Lindsay Anderson): 68

"Occasional stabs at surrealism are downright clumsy," I carped in my Time Out New York review ten years ago, but they work reasonably well for me now—mostly because they're not in fact "occasional" (which implies "random") but part of a deliberate formal strategy. Anderson spends most of the first hour compiling a keenly observed but relatively low-key portrait of English prep-school life, emphasis on petty tyranny, before gradually introducing discordant elements, many of which vanish almost before you have time to process them. ("Wait, were they just rolling around naked on the floor?") And what a genuine shocker that climax must have been at Cannes, before word got out—though I was surprised to find that it's not nearly as partisan as I'd remembered/assumed, in that the school (and even some of the visiting parents!) return fire. Were I more interested in tales of systemic abuse, I'd probably be more than mildly impressed, but you really have to go full metal jacket to overcome my resistance to that sub-genre; only the caning sequence, in which Anderson cuts to reaction shots of Travis' mates elsewhere on campus while retaining the audio from the gym (specifically the overwhelming sound of Rowntree running across that hardwood floor to deliver each blow), elevates my pulse much. Well,that and McDowell's galvanizing screen debut in hat and mouth-scarf, which I rhapsodized about in the earlier review. Surprised I said nothing about the matter-of-fact depiction of the Whips using the scum as sex toys (complete with a Van Sant-style angelic blond), but maybe I just felt that was a given. Certainly the movie does.

Young Adult (2011, Jason Reitman): 46

Climactic "inspirational speech" by Matt's sister takes such a cathartic wrecking ball to the pseudo-indie self-discovery template that I made a strenuous effort to re-evaluate the entire movie on that scene's behalf, to little avail. Problem is, while the film's overall shape is admirably frank and truthful, its moment-to-moment details are unerringly glib and phony—even when it comes to ostensible no-bullshit spokesman Patton Oswalt, playing the former victim of a hate crime who, conveniently for where the story needs to go, wasn't (and isn't) actually gay. Theron tries hard but is saddled with a cartoon notion of arrested development, which might be fine were Mavis not played mostly for pathos rather than jokes; it seems well beyond Diablo Cody's understanding that a person could be shrewd and together in some respects yet still make horrifically misguided decisions. Mavis' let's-get-wasted relationship with Matt couldn't be more painfully contrived if Oswalt were wearing a T-shirt with SOUNDING BOARD on the front and AUDIENCE SURROGATE on the back. And, like, is Buddy supposed to be retarded or what? No straight male, however happily married, is that insensible to blatant please-fuck-me signals, yet there's no indication whatsoever (until the script needs a cheap surprise) that he's aware of Mavis' intentions, much less ignoring her desperation out of pity. I spent pretty much the entire film wincing...and still those last five minutes or so got to me, not so much for their rug-pulling cynicism as for the entire implicit tragedy of Matt's sister's life, embodied by a speech that unwittingly validates a truly repugnant worldview. It's a moment of razor-sharp insight that deserved a far less comfortably spongy context.

Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol (2011, Brad Bird): 60

Here's the thing: He's actually up there. I understand that there was no real danger, that Cruise was safety-harnessed up the wazoo and tons of precautions were digitally removed in post, so forth, but there's still something genuinely awe-inspiring in seeing a setpiece like this that clearly isn't just a CGI construction. I thought I'd forever lost my ability to disbelieve what I'm seeing in a big-budget Hollywood movie, and was thrilled to be proven wrong. Plenty more spectacular absurdity, too, from the opening jailbreak (which demonstrates almost the same degree of screwball kineticism as The Incredibles) to the hi-tech hallway-replacement scrim they use in the Kremlin (extra credit for not explaining in advance how the device works) to the best use of a tracking monitor since Aliens. Sadly, the movie (ahem) peaks in Dubai—third act, despite the welcome presence of Anil Kapoor, settles for much more routine skullduggery, and also assumes way more investment in the previous installment than I certainly had. We don't care about Ethan Hunt or any of his team as complex individuals, fellas. Just keep putting them in harm's way and then getting them out via the most ludicrous means you can think of. Also, you need somebody to punch up the jokes next time—it's a bit sad to see poor Simon Pegg saddled with the verbal equivalent of exaggerated double-takes. (I can't even remember any of them to quote for you. That's how bland they are.) Still, three decent-to-good films out of four (sorry John Woo) is a pretty impressive success rate. Serious suggestion for #5: Jean-Pierre Jeunet. You guys gave him totally the wrong franchise.

/Jackie Brown/ (1997, Quentin Tarantino): 70

Used to think the vocal minority who consider this Tarantino's best film were insane, but I can at least glimpse where they're coming from now, even if I still think he's being awarded a lot of bonus points just for depicting a bittersweet middle-aged romance (and resuscitating Grier and Forster). Part of what threw me in '97, when I was a relatively impatient lad, was the disjunction between the movie's convoluted plot and its unhurried pace—not having read Rum Punch, I don't know for sure how faithful to it Tarantino was, but it feels as if he included all the long, discursive passages that any "sensible" screenwriter would feel obligated to either condense or chuck altogether. Which makes all the gun-running and deal-cutting and double-crossing seem like just a flimsy pretext to spend time hanging out with some interesting, loquacious people (and De Niro's Louis, whose noncommittal blankness for most of the movie I finally recognize as a brilliantly perverse joke). Much as I now enjoy their company, though, there's still a bit of an emotional void at the movie's center, which Tarantino attempts to fill by leaning even harder than usual on pop music as a universal signifier. Sometimes this pays off—I can't think offhand of another film that gets so much mileage from a car stereo's tape deck (on the wane even at the time), which picks up a mood right where it left off every time you restart the engine—but at other times Tarantino might as well be standing in the background of scenes holding a gigantic Lloyd Dobler boombox over his head. To paraphrase a snippy tweet (by Mark Asch, I think) that I saw right after Hugo and The Artist won the first two big critics' prizes: YOU LIKE OLD MUSIC WE GET IT.


Nictate said...

Really enjoyed your Jackie Brown thoughts, but couldn't disagree more on boombox analogy. Everything about the movie (including music) fits its groove, like the film itself is middle-aged--over the bullshit and comfortable in its own skin.

BTW, thanks for reminding me about the awesomeness of Flamo.

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