Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Catching Up 

Okay, here's another one of those, you know, catch-up posts. Sorry, but I just wanna get to some of the more interesting stuff I've seen in the last month.

The Ladykillers (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2004) - You know all those things people criticize the Coen Brothers for? Arch dialogue, unsympathetic characters, nasty stereotypes, etc.? In The Ladykillers, I can finally see them -- or rather, they actually bothered me this time. The film's first two acts play like someone trying too hard to emulate the Coen style: jokes are drawn out, mis-timed, or just plain not funny, and Tom Hanks' central performance is broad and over-stylized, even for the Coens. It's a good thing that the final act (when the band of thieves finally live up to the film's title) is so much fun that the film is salvaged, if only just. But between this and Intolerable Cruelty (which diminishes in my memory the more I think about it), the Brothers are in a bothersome and unprecedented slump; if they don't pull out if it with the next one, I'm going to have to stop being so forgiving. C+

Hellboy (Guillermo Del Toro, 2004) - Reportedly, director Guillermo Del Toro fought tooth-and-nail to get Ron Perlman cast in the title role of Hellboy, and the results of that fight are clearly to the positive: Perlman is the glue holding this otherwise shaggy comic-book story together. Yes, Del Toro adds a nice gothic/atmospheric feel to the mix, but when it comes to action scenes, I wish he would lighten up -- literally, because it's often so dark, you can barely make out what's happening. The CGI work is surprisingly solid (Hellboy himself looks terrific, and they wisely use make-up for close-up scenes), and I'm sure it's all very faithful to the source material (never read it, myself), but it's Perlman's performance, all gruff voice and sad-faced expressions shining through the latex, that brings out the heart in the middle of the madness. Otherwise, there's some business with Nazis and Satan (pretty cool, I admit), and some villains that look scary but aren't all that interesting. It's all reasonably entertaining stuff, but when Hellboy's surrogate father (John Hurt) and his fish-man sidekick (voiced by David Hyde Pierce) disappear in the final act, the film becomes a slightly tedious sit, and we all wait for the inevitable ending that only Perlman makes bearable. Hellboy isn't great, but thankfully, Hellboy is. B-

Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed (Raja Gosnell, 2004) - Brace yourself, because I'm going to start by saying something nice about Scooby-Doo 2: I actually felt for the characters a little. I have to hand it to the principal cast (Freddie Prinze Jr., Sarah Michelle Gellar, Linda Cardellini, and Matthew Lillard): they're clearly a lot more comfortable with the roles this time around (only Lillard seemed awake in the first film), and actually start to generate something resembling -- dare I say it -- chemistry. Heck, even the CGI monsters and wacky action scenes are better this time around, and I admit to chuckling at a few of the self-referential gags ("They're having a montage in there without us, Scoob!"). Unfortunately, in the case of the Scooby-Doo movie franchise, "better" doesn't exactly mean "good": The CGI Scooby is still creepy as hell, there are still too many potty jokes and wow-the-dog-thinks-it's-people gags, and I really wish the writers would realize they're making a movie about a cartoon and stop reaching for the freakin' pathos (for example, a character actually utters the line "What does your heart tell you?" in completely unironic fashion). But still, at least Scooby-Doo 2 isn't a complete disaster like its predecessor. Hooray for small victories! C

Jersey Girl (Kevin Smith, 2004) - I'd heard a lot of bad things about Kevin Smith's Jersey Girl before I saw the film, and for a good while, I was wondering what the heck everyone was complaining about. The first act features a few lame gags, true (a dirty-diaper bit? Come on, Kev), but it's also got Ben Affleck's first decent performance in a while, some truthful-feeling scenes between him and Jennifer Lopez, and a reasonably good and non-sappy handling of a major death scene. Granted, Affleck delivers an unconvincing speech to his baby daughter right before the story flashes forward seven years, but all in all, Jersey Girl is a pretty convincing character piece up to this point; heck, it even looks nice, a major development for Smith. It's all cruising along very nicely, and then we move ahead seven years . . .


I see what everyone is complaining about now. The bottom line is, when Jersey Girl flashes forward, it becomes exactly the kind of cloying self-improvement screed that Smith used to avoid like the plague. What's wrong with it? (1) Ben's daughter grows up into one of those cute movie kids obviously hatched from pods on Venus. (2) Almost every scene is underscored with the lamest, most obvious pop music you can imagine. (3) It carefully divides all sides of a life decision into two categories: the choice the kid wants, and the one Dad wants. Guess which one is always right? And (4) it simply stops being convincing in any way, shape, or form: a badly-timed montage covers up what should be a centerpiece bit of dialogue, affleck once again finds himself well out of his depth when asked to carry the emotional weight of a scene, and the conclusion, ridiculous with a capital R, is possibly the hokiest the-show-must-go-on climax seen since Shirley Temple was all the rage.

Come back, Kevin Smith: even Mallrats and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, for all their sloppiness, were more bearable than this; at least they were sincere. Jersey Girl, meanwhile, is the kind of sellout you made fun of Gus Van Sant for doing. Maybe you're really not meant for bigger budgets. C

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Walking Tall (Kevin Bray, 2004) 

Walking Tall is a remake of a previous film of the same name, but it's more accurate to call it a remake of every vigilante-justice film ever made. I don't think there's a single element that wasn't lifted from some other movie: the loner returning home, the bad guys making false overtures of kindness, the ludicrous courtroom scenes, the attempt to justify the protagonist behaving like a wrecking ball. It's a film made very specifically to cater to a certain small-town disenfranchised-male audience: you're down and out, it's someone else's fault, and the best way to right things is to take the law into your own hands. And while the hokey single-mindedness of the film's message is good for a few chuckles (okay, more than a few), it's hard to see Walking Tall as particularly memorable, except for: (1) its star, The Rock, continuing to impress as a credible, sympathetic film actor -- unlike, say, Hulk Hogan, there's no playing to The Rock's WWE persona in his performances, and he does well in creating a new character and covering the seams -- and (2) the interesting hoops the film must jump through to explain its hero's mixed ethnic background. What's interesting isn't that the film deals with the issue of mixed-race households in small-town America; what's interesting is that it doesn't address it, at all. No one mentions the fact that Rock's dad is black and his mom is white (though the real Rock, Dwayne Johnson, is half-Samoan, not Caucasian), and everyone seems to treat it as a perfectly normal family. Is this a sign of progress in small-town America? Or is it just the latest example of a Hollywood film deliberately ignoring difficult issues? I'd like to think it's the former. C+

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004) 

Going into Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, I was working on the theory that Spike Jonze may be the only director able to properly visualize a Charlie Kaufman script. After all, on the "good" side of Kaufman movies, I had Being John Malkovich and Adaptation (both directed by Jonze), and on the "bad/mediocre" side, I had Human Nature (directed by Michel Gondry) and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (directed by George Clooney). That Gondry was returning for a second go-round with Kaufman made me wary of Eternal Sunshine, particularly because my general impression of Human Nature was of a potentially great movie that Gondry had, well, kind of screwed up. Add to that Jim Carrey attempting something serious and dramatic, and you've got a rather iffy proposition, despite the good buzz and awesome trailer.

Fortunately, that apprehension washed away quickly from the opening frame of the movie, and Eternal Sunshine has such a great opening that it almost doesn't matter what happens after that. Gondry's film immediately took me aback at how loose and unforced it felt; Malkovich and Adaptation, for all their bizarre plot twists, still feel deterministic in their unfolding -- they're about what happens next, not how things are happening. But in Eternal Sunshine, we get an introductory conversation between Carrey and Kate Winslet on a train that's astonishing in how long it's allowed to continue. There's no plot or story being revealed here; it's just people talking for the sake of developing character. Hang on -- this is a Charlie Kaufman script? I didn't walk in on the latest Robert Altman film, did I?

We are, of course, eventually introduced to Kaufman's latest wacky conceptual gimmick: a doctor (Tom Wilkinson) has perfected the technique of removing specifically-targeted memories from human brains, so those who wish to forget, say, bad relationships may do so. Joel Barish (Carrey), our protagonist, decides to do so, and we spend much of the film inside Joel's mind as the memories disappear. There are the natural consequences of this decision, which the film explores, along with some not-so-natural ones. And there are the philosophical questions this kind of procedure would bring up were it to be invented in real life (Kaufman touches on these, though they're mostly left simmering under the surface). But what's really interesting about Eternal Sunshine is what Gondry brings to the table. Make no mistake, this is a Kaufman film, but not like Malkovich and Adaptation, in which the stamp seems all Kaufman and Jonze is just pointing the camera and trying not to get in the way. Eternal Sunshine is Kaufman filtered through Gondry, neither stepping on the other's toes, but filling in for the other's weaknesses, finding the right places to display a personal vision. You can see the dialogue, the plot, the characters as Kaufman's, but then there's Gondry, leaving little details in the background, shooting scenes in such a way as to almost make the dialogue incidental to the atmosphere of it all.

Human Nature made it look like Gondry was fighting the pace of the script, trying to impose the film he wanted to make over the film Kaufman wrote. Eternal Sunshine is a step forward for both, Kaufman writing something a little more open for audio-visual interpretation, and Gondry finding a way to make his style fit the script. The result is the best film I've seen this year, and one that's gotten richer the more I think about it.

Oh, and in all that, did I mention that it's funny? Very, very funny. And romantic and tragic and heroic too. Yes sir. A

(Let's hope this rating isn't a little too high, like it was for Lost in Translation last year, simply because the movie is the first out-and-out good thing after months of crap.)

Friday, April 02, 2004

The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2004) 

What more is there to say? If you dare, wade into the Passion of the Christ discussions over at the Cinemarati roundtable -- it's all been said there. But since I promised myself I'd say something about every new film I see on this blog, here are my two cents:

I'm willing to give Mel Gibson the benefit of the doubt and believe that he's doing something for the sake of honest personal expression here, and not actively trying to win people over to a conservative Christian mindset. Unfortunately, I also wish that Gibson's personal expression didn't have to be so loud and overbearing. There's nary an opportunity for contemplation or conflicting emotion in the entire running time of The Passion of the Christ -- every emotional cue is stamped, italicized, and underscored to make damn sure you didn't miss it. Jesus gets whipped, and we see the crowd's reaction, he gets whipped again, and we see the crowd's reaction, he gets whipped again, we see it again, and so forth. Jesus carries the cross up the hill, falls down, gets kicked around a bit, lather, rinse, repeat, over and over and over.

There's no attempt to contextualize any of Christ's suffering, no reasons offered for why any of this is happening. Given this lack of context, one must assume Gibson is preaching to the choir -- but even if I were a member of said choir, I'd also assume that Gibson thought I was an idiot who needed a five-minute point repeated twenty times over. Passion is easily the most patronizing, repetitive film I've seen this year, and the fact that most of it is brutally violent doesn't help at all. C-

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