Monday, August 04, 2014

Summer Movie Round-Up

Summertime is a good time for films--you're staying up late, you get too tired to do anything besides stare at a screen, you had to the theater to get out of the heat. It's been a pretty productive 2 and 1/2 months for me, film-wise; as the summer comes to a close (yes--here in Kansas, the kids head back to school next week, and Friends University will open its doors the week after), here's some short takes on what I finally managed to see:

At Close Range: A compelling crime drama from 1986 that had been on my list to watch for more than 20 years. I don't hear it mentioned often by other film nerds, even by those who love off-beat takes on American violence, but it's influence is pretty obvious: Sean Penn is every inch the struggling, soft-hearted, redneck bad-boy hero; Mary Stuart Masterson's less-mature-than-she-thinks-she-is 16-year-old ingénue is wholly believable; Crispin Glover captures, in a couple of brief scenes, the sad and desperate confusion and braggadocio of an unknowing, closted gay kid; and Christopher Walken has, of course, the scariest eyes in all film history.

The Boys From Brazil: A strange, not particularly involving paranoid thriller from 1978 that, if nothing else, provided Laurence Olivier and Gregory Peck with paychecks during their declining years. A story about Nazi war-criminals hiding out in South America and putting in place a grand conspiracy to clone dozens of baby Hitlers around the world, it's most notable, I think, for the utterly creepy kid of who played all the versions of the young Adolph. I hope they'd given him some make-up and training, because if that's how he naturally looks and acts, I feel sorry for him.

Chennai Express: A hilariously weird Bollywood production which Megan made us all watch after she returned from India; it is, apparently, one of the biggest hits in the whole history of Indian cinema. From my point of view it was a fun mix of action and slapstick comedy, but actually I guess it's a pretty brilliantly put together parody of its own mega-star, Shahrukh Khan; Megan had to stop the movie every five minutes or so and attempt to explain to us how the scene we were watching was actually an inverted riff on some previous film of his.

Don Jon: A fairly filthy but genuinely funny and often even insightful tale of a stereotypical New Jersey Italian-American player (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote and directed the film) who is addicted to porn. It's far better acted and scripted than it has any right to be, and through some delightfully sharp performances from a really great ensemble--Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Tony Danza, Rob Brown, Julianne Moore, Glenne Headly, and Brie Larson--it actually says something worth hearing about sex, romance, imagination, and commitment. I wish it somehow could have been made less dirty so I could get away with showing it to some young people I know at my church, but that's the way it goes, unfortunately.

Godzilla: Loved it! Yes, a complete B-monster-movie, but I was more that delighted with all the destruction and terror and the jokes we made about it all along the way. Ideally, I wanted this latest Godzilla movie--coming exactly 50 years after the first and best one--to hearken back to that mood: Godzilla as destructive god that we cannot stop, the retribution of nature upon humankind for the nuclear horror they had unleashed, a force we can only endure and vainly hope to turn aside until he returns to destroy us yet again. But as soon as I heard that there were going to be additional monsters in the film, I knew they weren't going to go for that, but instead would play up the whole quasi-heroic "King of Monsters" thing. Which, I don't deny, is awesome! When Godzilla ducks the leaping male MUTO and smashes it into a building with his tail, there was joy in the theater.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Also loved it. Wonderful, ridiculously incongruous soundtrack (Peter Quill's strutting final escape from the Kyln to the tune of "Escape" was just too perfect to be believed), delightful dialogue (I agree with many reviewers that Drax the Destroyer got some of the best lines), great special effects (the energy shield maintained by the Nova Corps was way cool), revealing as well as hilarious character moments (Rocket Raccoon revealing his surgically scarred back as well as asking for the artificial leg), and so much more. I've been telling folks for more than a year that this was the Marvel movie to see, and I'm happy to say I was proved right.

Lars and the Real Girl: A really clever bit of narrative inversion, resulting in a touching romantic drama. The conceit that crazy or damaged or anti-social characters are actually the wise and compassionate ones, capable of healing the lives of the "normal" folks around them, is probably as old as story-telling itself; this movie, once again featuring a great ensemble (Ryan Gosling, obviously, but also his brother and sister-in-law, played by Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer, and the family doctor played by Patricia Clarkson), takes that idea, and works out how it might actually play out in real life. Made me cry multiple times, and I didn't feel manipulated by that emotionality at all.

Legally Blonde: I honestly did want to enjoy this movie--which we watched because our second daughter has discovered and fallen in love with the musical based on the movie--and truly, there were a lot of completely earned gags in there. Ultimately, though, I just couldn't stop engaging in a Marxist critique of its whole premise: why on earth would the majority of the many and various denizens of Harvard Law School give a hard time to someone who buys her way into that elite institution, since, in one way or another, that's what most of them do?

The Wannsee Conference and Conspiracy: I watched these two films at the same time, cutting back and forth between them on YouTube, which turned out to be a thought-provoking way of appreciating what people make of the ultimate horror story, the Final-Solution-planning Nazi conference which both of these films recreate. I've seen both before and the German Wannsee Conference still strikes me as the better film, as it portrays the meeting in a much more conversational way, without any obviously dramatic build-ups or defined character moments, allowing us to better understand, as the dialogue makes clear, that the real evil here is in the political, intellectual, and social structure which makes it impossible to anyone to truly think outside the murderous box they all reside within. Conspiracy allows us to believe--and perhaps it is an accurately belief, but I doubt it--that there were real possibilities, embodied in the characters played by Colin Firth and David Threlfall, for something other than the mass extermination of European Jewry to emerge from the movement that Hitler built. That gives us, as viewers, the opportunity to be filled with righteous hate for the SS officers played by Kenneth Branagh and Stanley Tucci, and they certainly play up their every subtle moment of contempt and superiority--but I suppose I'm too much a believer in Arendt's banality of evil to prefer the charming manipulator over the calm supervisor as an explanation for the worst crime of the 20th century.

The World's End: I've now seen all of the so-called Cornetto trilogy, and I've enjoyed them all--Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg really have a comic genius together. World's End is probably, in some sense, the best made of the three, with a genuinely brilliant turn by Nick Frost (he's funny, he's romantic, he's dramatic, he's an action star: in a more just world, it would have been him and not Chris Pratt starring in Guardians of the Galaxy), but I have to say that my favorite remains Hot Fuzz. Why? Because of the fences, that's why:

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