10 March 2012

Viewing Journal: Week of 5-11 March

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.

Here's my standard top-of-the-month reminder that if you read these entries on a regular basis, find them in any way valuable, want to ensure that I don't get discouraged and give up, you should throw me a few bucks (link's at the top of the main page)—whatever you think a month's worth of near-daily capsules is worth to you. The amount is unimportant. (I suggested as little as $2; $5-10 is more common.) Just let me know you give a damn.

/Chasing Amy/ (1997, Kevin Smith): 51

Still his best film (of the first five—I gave up after Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back), but that's saying even less than I remembered. What's maddening is the way he completely torpedoes a superb premise that he'd actually been handling with surprising candor and sensitivity, right up to the head-smacking moment when Alyssa justifiably goes apeshit in response to Holden's declaration of love ("There's no 'period of adjustment,' Holden! I am fucking gay! That's who I am!") only to suddenly start macking on him, and then subsequently reveal that all those years of sleeping with women were really just her effort at being inclusive. Uh-huh. Tragic, really, because a film that had made an effort to truly grapple with the fallout of that blowup could have been tremendous, even with these actors. (Jason Lee is of course peerless in this sort of role—I'm amazed he didn't even place in the Skandies that year—but Affleck and Adams are totally solid as well, apart from the unfortunate pitch the latter's voice hits whenever she yells). Instead, Smith abruptly turns it into a movie about his own pet hangup, viz. not being able to deal with a woman's (hetero)sexual history. And he kinda does okay by that one, actually, though I'm less impressed than I was in '97 by the suggestion that Holden and Banky are secretly attracted to each other (which now strikes me as further evidence that Smith doesn't comprehend the difference between friendship and desire, and somehow got the idea that we're all innately bisexual). His ineptitude as a filmmaker, however, remains legendary. I'm not sure which is the biggest howler: the huge thunderclap after Holden says "I love you," or the interrogation of Alyssa's past that he sets at a hockey game so that he can cut to a body blow on the ice after each indelicate question. Jesus.

/Monty Python and the Holy Grail/ (1975, Terry Gilliam & Terry Jones): 79

Tough to evaluate a movie I watched so many times as a teenager that I committed the entire thing to memory, but the fact that it can still make me laugh out loud after all these years—at the Møøse-infested opening credits; at the coconut/swallow debate ("It's not a question of where he grips it"); at Lancelot sheepishly apologizing for slaughtering half the wedding party; at Tim the Enchanter and his absurd Scottish accent; etc.—is an all-but-inarguable testament to its genuine enduring hilarity. On the other hand, however, I have to admit that it's a bit...well, bitty—essentially a sketch comedy in which all of the sketches happen to be set during the same historical period. Unlike Life of Brian, which both tells a proper story (for the most part) and has a barbed satirical point to make, Holy Grail is strictly a laugh machine, so when you're not laughing—I lose interest during Gilliam's animations, for example (also true in the TV show), and have never found Cleese's French taunter all that funny—there's little else to divert you. Also, teenage me never once noticed all the fake close-ups that were clearly created in post via optical zooms, whereas now I wince every time the image suddenly degrades by at least 30%. The curse of cinephilia. Wish I'd been old enough during its first-run engagements to see how audiences of the day responded to the non-ending—not just the postmodern anachronism and lack of resolution (both of which were a staple of Flying Circus), but the jaunty exit music that plays over a black screen for several minutes while you wait in vain for something more. Though I guess they did that sort of thing on TV as well, actually.

Reindeer Games (2000, John Frankenheimer): 17

So demoralizing to see Frankenheimer's distinctive close-ups expended on these cardboard morons. If you watched it with the sound off, you could potentially imagine you were seeing something halfway decent, though a couple of the more blatantly retarded plot twists would still come across (and if you were a bit confused about one of them, Affleck helps out by doing one of the hammiest ZOMG! double-takes of all time). I watched the "director's cut," which Frankenheimer apparently genuinely felt was far superior, but it's really hard to believe he wasn't aware that the movie's idiocy is genetically hardwired—nothing that happens makes even one lick of sense, start to finish, with the final revelation so completely out of left field that the movie has to just shut down for like five minutes while the villain explains how it's even possible. (Because even if you've spent months—or is it years?—laboriously setting someone up as your fall guy, and now fully intend to kill him, it's only polite to satisfy his curiosity in extravagant detail first.) Attempts at humor flail jerkily about like the netted catch on the floor of a fishing boat, and there are random details throughout that make you wonder what the fuck screenwriter Ehren Kruger (whose Arlington Road coheres rather nicely) was smoking; when he needs to contrive a prison riot, for example, he decides the thing to do is to have the lunchtime jello so full of dead cockroaches that there's a giant carcass in every single inmate's tray. Some reviews seize on stuff like that and try to make a case for the film as an intentional parody of stupid Hollywood thrillers, but if that was Frankenheimer's intention, which I seriously doubt, he not only whiffed the tone entirely but forgot to inform Affleck, who alternates between earnest (most of the time) and smirky (when handed an identifiable if unfunny joke). Sinise does manage to make the dart-throwing scene work, though, I'll give him that. "Nick. I've been trying to hit you."

It Looks Pretty From a Distance (2011, Anka & Wilhelm Sasnal): W/O

[Pedigree: New Horizons '11; Rotterdam; ND/NF.]

But up close it's ugly and torpid and sullen and Neanderthal and deliberately uncommunicative and obnoxiously eventless and convinced to its core that monotonous silence = high art and just generally the worst kind of fest-circuit phoniness imaginable, bwahahahaha. Nothing concrete to say about this one because there's nothing there—its only agenda is to withhold anything that might grab the viewer's attention and thereby nullify its status as LE CINEMA BITCHES!!! Not remotely surprised to discover that the directors have crossed over from painting and other graphic arts, a move that bears fruit so infrequently that it's a wonder there's no campaign afoot to outlaw it.

Bernie (2011, Richard Linklater): 65

Not really sure what attracted Linklater to this particular real-life story, which isn't nearly as outrageous—or even as interesting—as the movie and its ad campaign insist. Given that inherent limitation, though, he has an enormously good time with it, again making terrific use of Jack Black's natural showmanship (a smash cut to "Seventy-Six Trombones" brings down the house) and tapping the playfully sleazy side of Matthew McConaughey (whose best moment is unfortunately ruined by the trailer, which cuts another shot into his beautifully timed pause). Best of all, needless to say, are the townsfolk interviews, featuring an ensemble so adroitly cast that I still wasn't 100% sure that material was scripted even as the closing credits rolled; reviews out of LAFF last year cited Christopher Guest, but while most of these talking-head sound bites are funny, they aren't ostentatiously funny—it's all credible as something that a real person might say. I assumed they were non-pros, in fact, only to look up e.g. Sonny Davis, the hilariously crusty old dude who lays out Texas' regional affectations early on, and find a long list of credits dating back to the late '70s (including a starring role in that recent rediscovery The Whole Shootin' Match, which I still haven't caught up with). Wish it were more than just mildly amusing, and that MacLaine weren't still content to coast on crotchety mannerism, and that Linklater and co-screenwriter Skip Hollandsworth had found a way to explain why there's a climactic trial at all (given that Bernie confessed and clearly has no desire to evade punishment—I can only assume it's because the D.A.'s office charged him with first-degree murder and refused to plea-bargain it down even to second-, though that's absurd if true), but as light entertainment goes, you could do considerably worse.

Romance Joe (2011, Lee Kwang-kuk): W/O

[Pedigree: Pusan '11; Rotterdam; ND/NF.]

Hard to believe that somebody could work as an assistant to Hong Sang-soo for years and think to himself, "You know what the festival circuit needs? Another Korean auteur making formalist anti-romantic comedies about socially awkward people who work in the film industry!" Granted, he's opted for a Saragossa-style Russian-doll structure rather than Hong's usual bifurcation, but I think I saw pieces of five different narratives in the 40 minutes I watched and was eager to return to exactly none of them. Get your own shtick, dude. Alan Rudolph didn't just package Altman in a different box.

/All Quiet on the Western Front/ (1930, Lewis Milestone): 75

Give it up to Milestone for directing battle sequences that still have the power to astonish over 80 years later, even compared to the groundbreaking contemporary films they directly influenced (namely Saving Private Ryan and its knockoffs). Actually, just give it up to him period, because the entire film is sensationally directed, to the point where it much more closely resembles late silents than early talkies. There actually is a silent version of All Quiet, as it turns out, shot simultaneously, and I really should watch that at some point, if only to see how it handles the incredibly stilted dialogue scenes that keep dragging the movie down. (Odds are it plays much the same, with the preachiness simply confined to intertitles.) Paul's extended apology to the French soldier he kills, in particular, plays as if he's reading some very earnest essayist's open letter, written years after the war ended; even granting that we're experiencing the gradual disillusionment of naïve youth, the level of aw-shucksiness can be toxic. When Milestone depicts the company's thinning ranks by following a pair of expensive boots as they're bequeathed from owner to owner, however, or shows Paul and friends wooing the belles across the river by dive-mooning them (oh, right, pre-Code), or locks the camera down for several agonizing minutes while the boys lose their shit after days of nonstop shelling, it's easy to forgive the occasional lapses into sorely dated moviespeak. Really surprised Lew Ayres didn't become a much bigger star, though maybe he was ultimately just a little too boyish for adult drama—the Matthew Broderick of his era.

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