Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Again, Movies Without Melissa (Hong Kong, Part 2)

Why Part 2? Because what do you think I did for those combined 32 hours I spent in an airplane seat? Made use of the wonders of digital technology, of course. So herewith, once again, a list of films I saw on my own without any input from my better half:

Armored: I put this one on close to the end of the flight to Hong Kong, I think; I needed to say awake, couldn't read, and so tried to find some mildly entertaining action flick to eat up and hour and a half. Which it did, just fine. All I really remember though is 1) I found myself wondering how Jean Reno feels about having built a career off being the go-to guy for whenever American action thrillers want some random multicultural presence to fill out their cast; and 2) it occurred to me that the movie was really just an inverted version of the old trope, Die Hard on an X: this time, the lone good guy is trapped inside something--an armored car--and he's trying to keep all the bad guys out (clever!).

Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans: A perfectly foul, amoral, and insane story...which I think just goes to show that there is only so much you can do with insanity as a subject; you really need to get crazy with the film itself. Nicholas Cage plays the corrupt cop Terrence McDonagh with positively hypnotic intensity, but his mania struck me as limited, even sad after a while. The best bits of the film were when Herzog let the world around Cage operate according to his crazy, drug-addled perspective, like when all of sudden the scene would shift, and we'd be looking at what Cage saw through the eyes of a crocodile or a possibly illusionary iguana. In fact, if I'd made this movie, I think I would have given Cage's McDonagh a pet gecko lizard or something, and shot the whole thing through that lens. Maybe uncomfortable to watch, but it would have fit the film's lurid story.

Crazy Heart: A fine movie, and I liked the fact that you never see Jeff Bridges's play Bad Blake's alcoholism and pride as anything besides pathetic and self-destructive, however understandable they may be. And the supporting cast really nails their respective roles, with great supporting dialogue to flesh their characters out (I found myself totally buying Colin Ferrell as the straight-out-of-central-casting-and-he-knows-it country music star Tommy Sweet). But ultimately, the movie didn't do much for me. As a film in which country music becomes part and parcel of a story of crisis and change, something essential was missing: God, I think. At least, that's what lay quietly at the heart of Tender Mercies, a film that you can't help but compare this one to, and a movie which outclasses Crazy Heart by a mile.

The Ghost Writer: A by-the-books political thriller, complete with the mysterious disappearances, hidden past, and lonely (read: sexually deprived) wife which practically all these films contain, but smartly directed enough that I didn't even see the big surprise coming until it was nearly upon me at the end of the film. And I liked how the story embraced the full logic of its own paranoid worldview: why wouldn't the CIA place sleeper agents in charge of other countries if they could, after all? Tony Blair's smile always did look a little synthetic to be real...

Gran Torino: The movie is handsome to look at, well made and wonderfully shot--but that's to be expected from Clint Eastwood and Tom Stern: they know how to make a film look and move well on the screen, and have a lot of talent for grabbing little moments, or capturing short lines of dialogue or small gestures that communicate a lot. As a story, though, let's face it--the movie is melodramatic, hackneyed, predictable, and almost ridiculously vulgar. And I loved it. Why? Because through that hackneyed vulgarity, Eastwood inhabits, fulfills, even transcends, every single taciturn, puritantical, foul-mouthed, angry, racist, fascist stereotype that the American view public has ever foisted upon him. I found myself watching the movie in wonderment: just how completely will Eastwood stack the deck? Let's have my character refer to black gang members as "spooks"! Let's have the brave but useless Catholic priest be chubby, with red hair! Let's nick-name the love interest of the Hmong teen-ager that Eastwood's Walt Kowalski reluctantly befriends "Yum-yum"! I swear, the movie didn't miss a trick. And as such, I found myself carried along with its myth of manhood, of the Angry White Male, in fact, and was even moved by the doom you knew he was heading for all along. My paternal grandfather was Mormon who didn't swear and didn't drink; he was financially better off than Eastwood's character, and had a better relationship with his kids. But for all that, he's mythologized in our family memory, in the same way Eastwood mythologizes himself here: as a tall, tough, no-nonsense, strict, prejudiced but ultimately decent old patriarch. I wish I could have seen the film with him.

Inception: I liked the movie's characters, and I liked the story it told; I just wish it had told more of it. So that's not really a criticism, just a bit of dissatisfaction. You have characters entering people's dreams, and then you posit the possibility of engendering dream states within dreams, then you have dreams withing those as well--surely, something like this ought to require an utterly fantastic, if not completely phantasmagorical, setting and imagery, yes? But no--while there are some thrilling sequences, and a few scenes that really did seem to capture the surreal logic at work in the film (Joseph Gordon-Levitt's free-fall fight in the hotel room, especially), in the end the movie just really seemed like a straightforward heist or caper film--get in, break open the safe, and get out. If you're going to want us to believe that the movie is taking seriously the strange world of dreams, you've got to do something strange. An this movie, for all its workman-like story-telling and special effects, didn't.

A Serious Man: I never know what to make of Coen brothers movies, whether I love them or find them infuriating. This one I felt to be quite similar in tone to The Man Who Wasn't There: the story of an ordinary man caught up in "ordinary" entanglements and suspicions that become so disconcerting and strange that eventually he can't help but think--and we viewers can't but think the Coens want us to think--that something grand and cosmic and terrible is occurring...maybe. Or maybe not. Is the tornado at the end of the film the Almighty, at last, finally speaking out of the whirlwind to Larry Gopnik? (Or at least to his "ordinary," basically decent though pot-smoking son?) Who knows? And is that, itself, the point? Could be! Or maybe not.

Where the Wild Things Are: A failure. Yes, with Spike Jonze and Dave Eggers, the screenplay and direction have hipster cred up the wazoo. And the Jim Henson Workshop creations were stupendous. But seriously, all this film did was give us a half-hearted thirty-something dream of what kids having a "Where the Wild Things Are"-type fantasy might be themselves be dreaming, not anything remotely believable as an expression of that kind of fantasy itself. Who is this little boy anyway? The script says he's eight years old, but he's obviously ten or eleven (you can't quite fake that with special effects, assuming you even tried), and meanwhile he's doing things and acting in ways that fit with a five or six-year-old at best, so what the hell? Is this a just a straight-up fantasy movie? But if so, why does time move like it's a dream? But if this is a dream of a child, why are the characters getting depressed and hurt by dirt clods and all the rest? Sorry, Mr. Jonze, but as a visionary, I think you may want to stick with music videos.


Stuart said...

I saw "A Serious Man" as a retelling of Job, just as "Brother Where art thou?" retold the Odyssey.

Russell Arben Fox said...

I thought about that myself, Stuart, especially when the whirlwind showed up in the end. (And, it now also occurs to me, you have the useless rabbis, in the place of Job's well-meaning but useless friends as well.) But that interpretation doesn't move me too much, because I feel as though the story of Job makes it clear we have no moral place to wonder about God, whereas throughout this film we're always wondering what, or even if, we should be wondering about what the Coens are up to entirely...

Damon Linker said...

I haven't seen many of these. Of those I have:

1. I agree that Crazy Heart was decent but also missing something. For me, it wasn't God so much as something, anything surprising. The film was incredibly predictable -- including that the gorgeous reporter would fall for the slovenly drunk.

2. I loathed A Serious Man. I found it offensively bad. And I don't buy the Job business. The film was far, far too smart-aleckly frivolous to be anything other than a nihilistic joke. Hated it. (And for the record, I quite liked "Oh, Brother," and have enjoyed several of the Coens' other films, so I'm not anti-Coen on principle.)

3. I liked Inception more than you, but not by a huge amount.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Thanks for the comments, Damon. Regarding CH, I agree it was predictable, though not utterly so; they did manage to bend a few conventions slightly (I liked the sequence where Bad Blake lost track of his "son"; that whole scene was played in a nicely understated way). But really, the whole film asked us to see BB's music as a way to get into his journey, and frankly, his journey was pretty short and dull, all told. God would have at least lent it some meaningfulness.

As for A Serious Man, I don't buy the Job interpretation either; I just note that it just might plausibly work. Emphasis on the "might"--like The Man Who Wasn't There, I really feel like the whole purpose of this story in the Coens' minds was to confuse us about whether we can even ask if there's any purpose there. Annoying, to say the least. I didn't hate it, but then I've never hated a Coen brothers film; as smart and cool-looking as some of their films are, there just even enough there to hate, I think.

Withywindle said...

Where the Wild Things Are has to explain being wild. Oh, there must be something wrong! A divorce! If you have to explain, you're explaining away, and don't understand. And Divorce Hurts Kids is a particularly banal explanation.