07 June 2012

Viewing Journal: Week of 4-10 Jun

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.

/We Need to Talk About Kevin/ (2011, Lynne Ramsay): 63

Previously addressed at Cannes, and taking a second look changed nothing. Even if we posit that the entire film is an untrustworthy memory play warped by Eva's guilt, Kevin is just too overtly demonic to prevent the film from feeling schematically repetitive, especially when Ramsay abandons her initial flurry of hallucinatory fragmentation and settles into a strictly linear groove (which threatens to become a rut). It's a dazzling dirge, and this time I clung even more desperately to its one mysterious, destabilizing interlude: Kevin's sudden tender affection for Eva when he gets sick. But the faint echo in the film's closing scene, as he awaits transfer to prison proper, just wasn't enough, and I was set adrift once again.

/A Perfect World/ (1993, Clint Eastwood): 50

Ah, 1993. The world was young. Well, I was young, anyway. Had just been blown away by Unforgiven the year before, and so processed this entirely as un film de Clint Eastwood...whereas today I look at it and see a movie written by the guy who made The Blind Side. It disappointed me back then, to be sure, but I vividly recall thinking that the Costner half was a masterpiece and wishing all the dopey scenes of Eastwood and Dern {and wait a second is that Bradley Whitford as the ice-cool sniper?} in lukewarm pursuit would just go away. But that assessment was predicated, if I can trust my memory, on the notion that Costner was trashing his virtuous image by playing a dangerous psychopath, whereas it seems painfully obvious now that he's in fact playing a fundamentally decent guy who turned to a life of crime because of (ugh) Daddy Issues. He and the kid still have a nice rapport—I'm always pleased when small children in genre movies actually behave like small children, getting the piss scared out of them when appropriate and failing to comprehend the adult world in troubling ways—and that offsets the sogginess to some degree; certainly Eastwood seems more keenly attuned to their relationship than to his own feeble subplot, as he can barely work up the energy to pretend he's invested in the boys' club that Dern's (thoroughly modern) Sally aims to invade. And at least the extent to which Costner's felon is projecting his own history onto others is left mostly implicit, rather than being spelled out in trailer-ready dialogue like "You're changing that boy's life." "No. He's changing mine." Small mercies.

21 Jump Street (2012, Phil Lord & Chris Miller): W/O

Just not funny to me, I'm afraid. Its one good comic idea—that the definition of "cool" has radically changed in the seven years since Channing Tatum's apathetic jock barely graduated, making him the outcast upon his return (which as a bonus has pretty obvious real-world resonance)—barely gets any play, at least in the first 40 minutes. (Having them accidentally assume each other's fake identities more or less kills it it any case.) And while, sure, I'm impressed that Tatum's willing to play so enthusiastically against type, he still needs material, as does Hill. Didn't enjoy all the meta-humor, either: "Hey, we're a sad pop-culture cash-grab but at least we know we're a sad pop-culture cash-grab and we don't try to hide it." Good for you.

/Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid/ (1969, George Roy Hill): 52

William Goldman expertly eviscerates his own script in Adventures in the Screen Trade, and I concur with most of his self-criticism. In particular, much of the dialogue is painfully jokey (as opposed to witty) and predicated on cheap reversals of expectation, reaching its nadir at the climax when Butch and Sundance get shot to hell and still keep lobbing sarcastic gibes back and forth. On the flip side, Goldman takes credit for the film's structure, by which I think he really means its sheer cussedness—no other Western I can think of introduces a couple of badass anti-heroes and then has them spend half the movie fleeing a group of faceless, implacable foes, never even really considering putting up a fight. And it's not as if the other half sees them turn the tables, either. "Fuck this noise, next stop Bolivia." Where everything promptly goes to shit. Yet while the opening newsreel self-consciously signposts the end of an era ("all dead now but once they ruled the West!"), the film's tone isn't really mournful or elegiac à la Liberty Valance, just oddly bemused. It's an unconventional portrait that I wish had been written by someone without quite such a glib sensibility (though, again, I admire that Goldman would later so openly dissect his most celebrated work; his nonfiction books are all terrific, especially Hype and Glory which remains the best behind-the-scenes look at a Cannes jury) and directed by someone with a better feel for the outdoors...or at least by someone who'd veto a bike-riding montage set to a Bacharach & David tune. MVP is Redford, who gives away so little here, seems awesomely unconcerned with being liked. Wonder how great he might have been had this film not made him a superstar.

Prometheus (2012, Ridley Scott): 54

Pretty impressive fan fiction, though the plot doesn't make a whole lotta sense even allowing for the likelihood that some open questions will be answered in the now-inevitable sequel. (MASSIVE SPOILERS IN THAT LINK, DO NOT CLICK UNTIL YOU'VE SEEN THE FILM. I dated it 2003 just so nobody could possibly stumble onto it by accident.) I'm less bothered by the Lindeloffing, though, than by the overall shoddiness in every element save for the visual. Alien admittedly didn't boast a cast of Chekhovian characters, but the crew at least seemed credibly professional given that they were blue-collar grunts; here, we're supposed to believe that Noomi and her fella are scientists (with fields of study that mutate as rapidly as the xenomorph, it seems), but they come across like a social worker and the trainer she started dating at her local gym. And it's just impossible to believe that anyone with a functioning brain stem would see that snake-thing rise out of the ooze on some heretofore unexplored world and say "Awwww how cute c'mere lemme pet you!" Only Fassbender, with his Mona Lisa smile forever contradicting any notion of android impassivity, suggests the psychological murkiness required of this philosophically ambitious prequel, which strives for much more than Alien's simple nightmare-in-a-can but achieves so, so much less. Still, it's always stunning to look at, and while the dominoes set up to reach that auto-Caesarean setpiece are laughable (I'm still looking for a plausible explanation of why David would dose the gym rat, given that he should have no clue what would happen), it produced the intended OMG OMG OMG so on some level I have to just give it up.

The Longest Day (1962, Ken Annakin/Andrew Marton/Bernhard Wicki): 67

One look at the directing credits and you can see why this all-star historical epic—a Best Picture nominee that year, losing to fellow epic Lawrence of Arabia—rarely gets mentioned nowadays. But while I was steeled for something stodgy and bloated and incoherent, the film turns out to be almost avant-garde by the standards of its era, to the point where only patriotism could have prevented its wholesale rejection by the public. I can see folks grudgingly coping with all the subtitled French and German dialogue, and even respecting the decision to treat the Nazi command with reasonable dignity; the film emphasizes their tactical intelligence, making it clear that they were caught off guard mostly because a Normandy invasion in that weather seemed suicidal. But only with a subject as momentous as D-Day could even a quasi-Hollywood movie be this relentlessly procedural and uninterested in manufacturing conventional drama. It's truly the story of the operation itself, focusing on individuals only to the extent that doing so clarifies how it went down. John Wayne gives a standard gruff motivational speech early on and then vanishes for long stretches, in part because he's playing an officer whose battalion of paratroopers badly overshot their drop point. Other icons—Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton—are treated no more heroically, nor given any more narrative weight, than are obscure actors playing members of the French resistance. Granted, we're still talking here about three pretty generic craftsmen at the helm, so The Longest Day never achieves the heart-stopping highs of similar sequences in Saving Private Ryan or The Thin Red Line—it's engrossing rather than exhilarating, playing very much like a meticulous adaptation of a nonfiction blow-by-blow. In that sense, it was more or less the United 93 of its day.

The Intouchables (2011, Eric Toledano & Olivier Nakache): 45

Reviewed for Las Vegas Weekly, where I didn't have enough space to sigh heavily, for example, at the way this pandering mediocrity twice employs the tired routine where you cut from someone insisting that under no circumstances will he [do whatever] directly to a shot of him in fact [doing whatever]. Nor was I able to properly address the question of racism, and in particular answer the reasonable-sounding assertion made by one annoyed French journalist, viz. that The Intouchables commits no ostensible offense or sin that can't also be found in Beverly Hills Cop. I would invite that journalist to take a good look at the scene in this film that has Driss dancing to "Boogie Wonderland," which is problematic not merely because it's a black man demonstrating rhythm to an audience of white stuffed shirts, but because of the way Omar Sy has been photographed: beaming and strutting almost directly to the camera as if desperately seeking its approval. Eddie Murphy did not do that shit.

Whisper of the Heart (1995, Yoshifumi Kondô): 43

Feels like a movie made not just about a teenage girl but expressly for teenage girls, the cinematic equivalent of young-adult fiction. Without Ghibli's usual otherworldly elements (present here only in fleeting sequences depicting the story Shizuku's writing), there's precious little to interest an adult viewer beyond lovely animation; everything's spelled out in afterschool-special dialogue, and Shizuku's growing pains—dominated by a peculiarly Japanese anxiety about measuring up to idealized others—are just too banal to be presented so straightforwardly. (As if to emphasize its commitment to triteness, the film hilariously treats John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" as if it were "Eleanor Rigby" or "Like a Rolling Stone," a holy text to be endlessly decoded and reinterpreted.) Also, while I recognize that it's a bit silly to take the ending seriously, two little kids who barely know each other getting engaged doesn't inspire in me the paroxysms of joy that were clearly intended (which would be less of a problem were the film not so resolutely mundane—there's no fairytale aspect to this union). Again, though, it's not really my intention to beat up on Whisper of the Heart, which is a perfectly serviceable tween-empowerment tale. I'm just a bit baffled, as I was regarding last year's much-touted Winnie the Pooh flick, that it appeals to anyone for whom puberty is a distant memory. Watercolor splendor aside, it's more Judy (Blume) than Kiki.


Kent M. Beeson said...

I was a little taken aback by your rating for WHISPER OF THE HEART. While not my favorite Ghibli, it was the only one to leave me bawling as the credits rolled.

Then I realized I was thinking of ONLY YESTERDAY.

Also, what's with the thing where little kids get engaged? Is that a Japanese thing? Cuz, IIRC, it happens at the end of PONYO, but I chalked that up to the film being bonkers.

md'a said...

I haven't yet seen Only Yesterday, so there's still hope for that one. But I tend to be less enthused about Studio Ghibli than most. Arrietty is the only one I actively like, and that's mostly affection for The Borrowers.

Zack said...

I think you liked Prometheus a little more than I did, but we're on the same page, and that SMS convo is both hilarious and right on. I think you may be giving it a little too much credit in the "OMG" department, since it seems to both take great pains to align with Alien and have absolutely as little as possible to do with Alien. (Internet debate rages on: "It's a different ship though, right?" "It's not the same planet is it?" Who the hell knows.)

It's certainly beautiful, and that combined with the intrigue of the first act made me feel like I was in the hands of the Ridley Scott we all love and admire, but who rarely makes an appearance and/or a movie. But aside from the totally stupid/inept script elements (on top of the ones you noted, "He cut me off!", "... FATHER!", the first-act introduction of a surgery machine), it just spirals right the fuck out of control into utter nonsense, culminating in a final scene designed to quell any unmet expectations but instead only falling further short.

You are 100% right about Fassbender, to whom I would immediately award the year-end acting award of his choice on the basis of this performance alone. He plays this thing EXACTLY right; I practically got goosebumps watching him from beginning to end. He is totally in control, but also not without humor (a couple days later, I'm still cracking up thinking about Rapace saying, "Can I look at it?" and him basically saying, "Oh, I don't think that's a good idea). The decision (spoiler ahoy) not to give motive to any of David's actions is the movie's only glimmer of genius. I may succumb and see it again in IMAX 3D on the basis of that epic Twitter discussion of yours, as well as the recommendation of two friends who saw it that way today. If I do, I take great solace in knowing that I'll have Fassbender to keep me interested.

eugene n said...

I thought Prometheus was tremendous. Can't really argue with some of your nitpicks, except to say that I found them incidental (e.g., yes, Logan Marshall-Green doesn't particularly look like a star archaeologist, but who really gives a shit?). I do think that some of the points you make in your SMS riff are pretty wack: the mystery of why the Engineers decided to destroy the civilizations they helped create is the point, not a mistake, and w/r/t the improbability of one of the (presumably vast number) of planets they seeded developing humanoid life forms I can only look at you funny and direct you to the Wikipedia entry for "anthropic principle."

The question of why the Engineers apparently educated ancient civilizations about how to find their weapons base is a good one. I'm inclined to give Lindelof et al the benefit of the doubt, but I get it.

I don't understand the question re: "why David would dose the gym rat, given that he should have no clue what would happen" -- I don't think he had any clue what would happen; it was a callous experiment, akin to the many that ultimately produced him.

I was impressed by how thematically cogent and purposeful the film was, all the way to the end, and blown away by its scale and scope and beauty. And it has pretty much erased my objections to careful, considered use of quality 3D.

md'a said...

the mystery of why the Engineers decided to destroy the civilizations they helped create is the point, not a mistake

Which I acknowledge by having the Engineer note that all will be revealed in the sequel. That's not a complaint; I was just being thorough. But I do believe that any future explanation for the star maps, which clearly make no sense, will be devised in future. They're there because otherwise no movie; if they had a strong logical explanation that's already been worked out, there'd be at least a hint of it in this film, e.g. the question would be openly raised (as the question of why the Engineers turned on us is).

w/r/t the improbability of one of the (presumably vast number) of planets they seeded developing humanoid life forms I can only look at you funny and direct you to the Wikipedia entry for "anthropic principle."

I'm looking at you funny now, because you 're chiding me despite having no apparent understanding of what the anthropic principle is. (Believe me, I've read far more on this topic than a Wikipedia entry.) It says nothing whatsoever about the number of life forms that might statistically assume humanoid form, which could very easily be zero. It merely states a tautology: only a universe with fundamental constants capable of producing conscious observers will produce conscious observers. And then there are various arguments attached to that tautology that either claim this proves our universe must have deliberately designed by something we might as well call God or claim this strongly implies a multitude of other universes in which the fundamental constants vary (for which there's an abundance of scientific evidence if you're interested in digging deeper). But nothing in the anthropic principle suggests that if humanoid Engineers seeded a sufficient number of planets, at least one of them would evolve humanoid lifeforms. At best you should point to the Wiki entry on convergent evolution.

As for David, his behavior just seems a little too mad-scientist to me for a robot without a hidden agenda à la Ash. It's thematically appropriate but I don't believe it on the narrative-surface level. He's essentially Josef Mengele with milk-blood.

eugene n said...

My point re: the anthropic principle is that it is equally pointless to complain about the improbability of human life arising from the Engineers seeding earth with DNA as it is to complain about the improbability of human life arising from whatever theory of abiogenesis is currently popular (just as it is pointless to complain about the improbability of having a universe with the right physical properties to enable biological life to arise). All are fantastically improbable a priori, but we're here, and that's that. The probability is 1.

Thinking about it more, I suppose this is cheating if you're looking backwards to specify an origin, since obviously not every hypothesis will have an equal shot at being true. You're saying that it's too much of a coincidence that our Engineer progenitors looked like us. Okay.

eugene n said...

Oh, and David clearly has a hidden agenda. I don't know if that's what you're objecting to as implausible, or if you're assuming the oppsosite.

Filmy Eye said...

As Studio Ghibli films go, POM POKO is well worth a look, too, if only for the novelty of seeing a cartoon with such a pronounced and graphic emphasis on cute anthropomorphic animals magically changing the size and shape of their testicles.

I am not even a little bit kidding.

Filmy Eye said...

Also, I recently Googled "we need to talk about kevin soundtrack" and discovered this unintentional hilarity. I really would like to believe this is the actual cover of the French audiobook edition. Wouldn't you?