Tuesday, September 25, 2007

C Sick

For a week or two now, I've been rejoicing at the prospect of all these Fall movies opening, looking forward to each release with aplomb and a positive predisposition, especially after that late-August and early-September run where I got a big, inspiring lift from almost every trip I took to the cinema: from the acerbic but energetic 2 Days in Paris to the engrossing and nearly profound Deep Water to the urgent and astute No End in Sight to the shrewdly discomfiting and illuminating Day Night Day Night to the clever and inordinately entertaining King of Kong, which I paid to see twice, sparking a contagious audience ovation both times before the thing was even finished.

But speaking of "finished," everything since then has just been so....blah. I feel how monotonous my updates must seem, trapped in this "C" range I can't get out of. So this is just an open letter of good intent: I will be thrilled, as soon as the opportunity presents itself, to credit a movie a little higher, even to tread into B or B– territory for something that won't shake anybody's world but at least delivers craftily or consistently or stylishly on a solid story or rewarding theme. But so far, I just can't do it. Superbad begins with a delicious credit sequence and 20 solid minutes of ornately uproarious dialogue, well-delivered by Jonah Hill and Michael Cera, but the belly-laughs turn precipitously to belly-flops once this extraordinarily crappy-looking movie gives itself over for way, way too long to twin plots that aren't interesting and don't work: procuring booze against overfamiliar and arbitrary obstacles, and noodling around with two unfunny cops who never once stake a claim as actual characters. There's a little pick-up toward the end, partly because Martha MacIsaac and especially Emma Stone are so ingratiating (if sadly underutilized and underconceptualized) as the objects of obscure teenage desire, but that long, turgid middle section throws a big, beer-gutted shadow over the whole enterprise. Not superbad, but prettybad, and superdisappointing. C–

3:10 to Yuma and In the Valley of Elah were probably always destined for aesthetic conservatism and middlebrow limitations in theme, but there is no reason for their narratives and character studies to have veered so badly off course. Both films feature strong lead performances, from Russell Crowe in Yuma, and from an arresting but restrained Tommy Lee Jones and an appropriately disillusioned Charlize Theron in Elah. The unusual, intriguing musical score in Yuma and the ragged, enigmatic swatches of embedded video in Elah deserve credit for tugging smartly against the boilerplate plot dynamics and visual lifelessness of both movies. This problem is most aggravating (and surprising) in Yuma, which doesn't even try to draw meaning, vitality, or even a pretty postcard image from the engulfing desert, instead hemming its actors into sallow, unflattering, and relentless close-ups. Worse, Yuma never gets near, much less inside, the head of Christian Bale's protagonist (his blank perf doesn't help), which makes it even harder to understand why Crowe, who rightly thinks he's playing a wily and incorrigible villain, seems only too willing to put Bale's needs and priorities above his own in sequence after sequence, especially the listlessly edited climax. For its part, Elah doesn't just bungle the "mystery" aspects of its script but almost sadistically works against them, leaking tension the way a bullet-blasted tire loses air, threading second-tier characters in and out at random, and selecting a culprit for its head-scratching crime virtually at a whim (despite the character's impressive alibis and lack of persuasive motivation). Elah has to know this resolution doesn't work, and that it lethally neutralizes the whole movie by extension, because Haggis barely films it; we overhear that a shockeroo confession has taken place between scenes, one of many signs that Elah's cutting-room floor is swampier than a trash compactor on the Death Star. Both films: C–

After watching all these men try to score babes and settle scores, I thought a long-delayed trip to the worrisome Becoming Jane might at least offer a refreshing idiomatic contrast. Sadly, the story is as thin as I had heard, the production design and costumes are all exactly what you'd expect, and the presumed link between creative genius and diaristic transcription of one's own experience is a jaw-dropper of an ingrained insult to the film's subject. Say this for Jane, though: unlike the above films, the movie actually improves from a wobbly beginning, as director Julian Jarrold does an unexpectedly sturdy job of evoking the visual coldness and dispassionate hardness of the world in which Jane Austen (or at least this movie's Jane Austen) wrote her incandescent but never entirely optimistic fictions. If the basic story cheapens the author and her gifts, and James McAvoy never seems like a great love (instead of, say, a scrappy playmate), the color palette and orchestration of light temper the rampant romanticization and nostalgic sanctification rather nicely. Now someone just has to teach that cinematographer not to scalp the actors. C

The early-fall documentaries have been as problematic as the fiction films. In the Shadow of the Moon has scored some very generous critical notices, but compared to the urgency and the discursive sophistication of something like No End in Sight—which doesn't just evoke a more timely concern but presents a genuinely fresh take on the war as a massive crisis of Iraqi unemployment and systematic disenfranchisement—In the Shadow of the Moon just turns the camera on while nine retired astronauts offer interesting but unsurprising recollections about their trips into space ("It was really something! It changed my life!"). Neither their level of introspection nor the composited stock footage of lunar landings and cosmic panoramas adds anything new to one's understanding of the space program or to one's most automatic and time-honored visual iconographies. The men relive their memories without the film doing anything to make them our own, much less give us anything substantial to chew on or reconsider. The independently produced Helvetica has a fresher, more surprising subject—the history of a typeface, specifically, this one, which anyone who has filed U.S. tax forms or taken a New York City subway will instantly identify. The world of type designers and graphic artists proves colorful and intriguing for the first 20 minutes, and for that same duration, the film makes a solid case for the ubiquity but also the flexibility of Helvetica script. Unfortunately, someone convinced director Gary Hustwit to make a feature instead of an extended short, which means that Helvetica spirals into ever more redundant interviews with less and less eloquent designers of less and less apparent pedigree. The visual collages of signs and public text aren't always discernibly in Helvetica, to say nothing of ridiculous filler images of sidewalk crowds, coffee cups, and old LP covers. The film tries to play its subject from as many angles as the graphic-design world has tried to play Helvetica, with the analogous result of overexposure and exhausted interest, and the added sin of leaving key questions unanswered and more promising inroads untraveled. Both films: C

Amidst all of these surging C's, I wonder if I'm being slightly harder than I need to be on Neil Jordan's The Brave One and Julie Taymor's Across the Universe. The former at least accommodates some daring camera angles and taut sequences near its beginning, as well as some welcome attempts to trouble the stylistic mandates of realism; the latter yields four or five genuinely stirring images (strawberries nailed to a canvas, bone-white women and ceramic masks floating like genocide victims in gray water), and Taymor at least wants to push cinematic depth of field and risk extremes of figuration and superimposition in ways that James Mangold and Paul Haggis, more comfortably ensconced in the Hollywood system, will never even consider. But, for all that—well, the movies suck. A lot. Precisely as he did in In Dreams, Jordan fails utterly to set rational boundaries around his fairy-tale idioms in The Brave One, winding up with a totally indigestible mix of the overblown, the sadistic, and the unpersuasive. Meanwhile, the script ties itself in contortionist's knots to find ways of jerry-rigging, excusing, and abstracting the Jodie Foster character's outlandish acts of mercenary violence. The actress herself is lost somewhere between repeating all the established tropes of her woman-besieged subgenre and wallowing like some reckless exhibitionist amidst the seamy iconographies of her own troubled star persona: gun-wielding assassins, publicity-shy celebrity, homoerotic clinches with a teenage hooker, butch haircuts, veiled "is she or isn't she" innuendos. You leave the film feeling sorry for Foster but also angry at her, baffled at Neil Jordan, and helpless to explain why actors as good as Terrence Howard, Naveen Andrews, and Mary Steenburgen can't find a movie that cares remotely about their characters. Across the Universe is less ethically offensive than The Brave One, and for a movie that does almost nothing right, I was surprised at how easy this one was to spend 131 minutes with, hoping that Taymor's capricious visions would actually cohere into something, if only in her next film. As far as this one goes, what can I say? The singing is awful, the songs are shoehorned into generic and disconnected contexts, none of the characters have more than a single facet, entire transitions are palpably missing (how about those steamboat crossings?), and the politics are so ludicrously simplified and self-contradictory they make Rent look like Brecht. Is love all you need, or not? Hard to say, and even harder to sing. Plus, just like The Brave One, Across the Universe has nothing to say to, for, or about black people, but doggone if it can't stop panning to and over them, reminding us that They are Wise™, and also picturesque and sonorous when they grieve. Though this grief sometimes takes the discordant and stupidly opportunistic form of gospel choirs singing "Let It Be." Which still isn't as bad as brand-new acquaintances singing "A Little Help from My Friends" or bewildered-looking actors who a) sing "Dear Prudence" to a girl, named Prudence!, in a locked bathroom, b) float through a thinly Photoshoppy spacetime continuum while doing same, and c) exchange patronizing winks and smiles because Prudence is a total lesbian...which allows Across the Universe to add one more item on its rainbow-brite List of Totally Deep Themes. Both films: D+

And so now I'm left with the best but also the most frustrating of all of these September releases, David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises. Cronenberg's London is more consistent and credible than Jordan's New York City, but Eastern Promises keeps holding itself back from really thinking or feeling its way through the city, opting for anodyne interiors rather than building on the potential of its unique take on London locations. Like The Brave One and Across the Universe, Eastern Promises is dogged at portraying for us a world of ethnic and cultural life that it doesn't seem to know anything about, so that the hoariest clichés of music, dialogue, vocal affectation, and sinister connotation are enlisted to form the movie's amalgamated "Russianness." Steve Knight's shaky script needs Naomi Watts' Anna to find the diary that catalyzes the plot but then never thinks of a single other reason for her to be in the movie, much less to be the second lead. Unsatisfied by Vincent Cassel's heavily insinuated desire for Viggo Mortensen's steely, reticent chauffeur, Knight writes an overstated episode where Cassel forces Mortensen to strip and have sex with a prostitute right where he can observe—thus constituting the most patently absurd scenario of pathetically lurid and dramatically implausible homoerotic longing since Judi Dench danced appallingly in Cate Blanchett's living room. Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and composer Howard Score admirably resist repeating their earlier triumphs with Cronenberg, but they both seem to take the new film's edgy/scruffy aesthetic to an ill-advised extreme of crudeness and cliché, and the big finale is as artificial and warped as the one in The Brave One (well, almost).

Still, the reviews have largely been raves. I concede that Mortensen is excellent: he is terse, slithery, intellectually potent, and physically articulate, and best of all, he is morally illegible in a way that often feels remarkably fresh in such a genre-bound entertainment. Unlike Cronenberg (although certainly with Cronenberg's intensive assistance), he has fully risen to the challenge of assaying unworthy material and justifying how a real artist can perceive and realize the potential in a heap of empty contrivance. But the bathhouse interlude you've heard so much about disrupts the style and flow of the piece much too drastically—it's the only scene where Cronenberg comes alive, but his priorities are perplexing and the tonal register, especially regarding the exaggerated violence, is off—and I left the film wondering what to make of that barbershop prologue, wondering whether the dead girl's voiceovers from her diary were exactly necessary, wondering why you'd introduce a huge plot twist ten minutes from the end of your picture and then do nothing at all with this new information, and wondering what in the hell an "eastern promise" could possibly be. Cronenberg always deserves a second shot, and maybe I have underrated Eastern Promises because it so drastically refuses to take shape as any of the multiple movies I would have liked it to be. But my second trip to Spider in 2002 only affirmed that a hamstrung Cronenberg movie still feels hamstrung on the second go-round, and I'm increasingly suspicious that this Promise simply isn't kept. A C+ isn't out of the question, but then I remember that teenaged-screenwriter device of the traumatic miscarriage, and the underlit hospital and the crunchy quality of the curbside London light, and the oogah-boogah way in which the movie keeps trying to scare us with the words "Vory v Zakone", and Armin Mueller-Stahl's way-too-long pause before the words "a diary?", and the creaky coincidence of the right nurse passing the right gurney in the right corridor at the right time, and that animatronic infant, and I wind up back at C.

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Blogger tim r said...

Couldn't agree more about: the absurd and overworked legimitisation of Foster's agenda in The Brave One, everything you say about 3.10 to Yuma, and the simultaneous sidelining and sanctification of non-whites in Across the Universe, a problem I'd extend to the detached, arrogant tableau of Cold Dead Vietnamese Chicks. Yuck!

Spider is NOT hamstrung, but I've got your back on most of this...

4:42 AM, September 25, 2007  
Blogger StinkyLulu said...

Love that you posted this. I'm so behind on my September viewing (I've only seen Superbad, which I liked more, and Eastern Promises, which I liked less.)

6:57 AM, September 25, 2007  
Blogger Yaseen Ali said...

Oy... sorry about your bad run at the movies. I do hope that October offers happier sights and sounds.

You're so spot on about Eastern Promises (I don't even have to write a review now!) I was a little kinder in grading, but the film is not improving with time and distance. I like how you touch upon setting and how Cronenberg fails to really capture London or do anything with it (much like Allen missed the boat with Match Point.)

Plus points for bringing up Notes on a Scandal. I wouldn't take issue with the queer elements if they weren't so exaggerated. The miscast (typecast?) Vincent Cassel leaves nothing to the imagination, as he struggles with daddy issues and makes eyes at Viggo.

Naomi's family subplot is badly handled too; I liked her mother's line "This is not our world. We are ordinary people", which opens up the potential for exploring all sorts of themes re: identity, violence, public/private space a la Cronenberg, but they never quite materialize. Instead, the director faithfully follows Knight's screenplay (in which Naomi's character is almost an afterthought), one plot point to the next. For that matter, Cronenberg doesn't quite "pick up" on anything in a meaningful way - father-son relations, the body (tattoos), etc. It's all pretty straightforward...

... until that bathhouse sequence, which is insanely compelling, but feels completely out of place considering the somber tone that has been building throughout.

I still can't understand how this won the Audience Award at TIFF. If A History of Violence had done so two years ago, I wouldn't have thought about it twice. That was a real crowd pleaser, in the sense that it sucked you in; it was playful and even funny. I had to really push myself to remain involved in this one.

(I thought Armin Mueller-Stahl was amaaazing though.)

10:43 AM, September 25, 2007  
Blogger tim r said...

So glad that Lady Chatterley has lifted you out of the doldrums, if only to the tune of a B+. I think there are lax passages, but what an enchanting film it is.

2:55 AM, September 26, 2007  
Blogger Calum Reed said...

Yeah, I had noticed you weren't having the best couple of weeks at the cinema. Lol.

The only one of those I've seen is Becoming Jane and I agree that the love story doesn't work well. It was a tame and fairly pointless film I thought. Made decently though.

I like Crash but the Haggis/Theron combo is just too frightening for me. I really don't like either of them. Is Tommy Lee Jones at least worth seeing it for?

4:37 AM, September 27, 2007  
Blogger tim r said...

I can't wait to talk to you about Into the Wild, which contains, among plenty of other gorgeous things, the best few seconds of William Hurt's career.

Thought that might grab you...

3:26 PM, September 27, 2007  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

mmm Lady Chatterley. It ages well in the head too.

7:52 PM, September 28, 2007  
Blogger tim r said...

The last shot of him on the street. Quite extraordinary, no?

I'm so glad you weren't let down!

9:43 AM, September 29, 2007  
Blogger Y Kant Goran Rite said...

hey Nick

Off-topic - but how eerily, prettily awesome is PJ's latest?

7:23 AM, September 30, 2007  
Blogger Bryce Digdug said...

Eastern Promises was brilliant. I thought the film was sustained by the writing. Most films these days - you have impossible film chases etc., but here the drama is sustained by the plot. Now I'm scared by the old Russian guy who runs my laundromat! Luckily I'm buying my own liquid detergent now instead of breaking their machine - I might end up in the Thames! Your website is fun. It's a little difficult to read with a black background and serif type.

7:06 PM, September 30, 2007  

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