Thursday, May 27, 2010

Movie Log: Everything I've Seen for the Past Month

I'm clearly not going to write full-length posts on all of these movies at this point, so, instead, here's a lightning round of movie hornswoggling!

The Amateurs: in retrospect, this looks like an out-of-town tryout for Kevin Smith's Zach and Miri Make a Porno, which was released a year later. (Though Amateurs apparently sat on the shelf for a few years, so the real gap is somewhat longer.) It's a loose-limbed comedy with a lot of recognizable faces in it, led by Jeff Bridges as the kind of lovable goofball that he could play in his sleep. For an unexplained reason, the Bridges character comes up with bizarre schemes, and pretty much his entire town goes along with them, even those those schemes never work out well. (This is not the most plausible, or coherent, of premises, but it's the one The Amateurs chooses.) The scheme in this particular case is to make a porno movie to make them all rich -- this, of course, does not happen in the way Bridges's character hopes. It's generally funny, and doesn't strain plausibility too much, but it's the kind of movie that makes a viewer seriously wonder how it ever got made at all, let alone attract so many well-known actors to it. One might begin to wonder if blackmail played any part, because no more obvious explanation comes to mind.

Born Romantic: The Wife and I are always up for a romantic comedy that isn't stupid -- a category that's vastly smaller than one might think it would be, though having primarily British accents seems to help, at least some of the time -- and so we found our way to this movie a few weeks ago. It's not quite a lost masterpiece, but it doesn't make any obvious missteps as it tells three intertwined romantic stories with style and energy. (I'm coming to believe that the only rom-coms worth seeing have more than one love story in them, since Hollywood can't tell one love story without tossing in all kinds of puerile "complications.") Craig Ferguson is particularly fun to watch here; it looks like he could have had a decent career as a film leading man if he'd had more luck with his first few movies. There's also a strong dance element here -- tango, I think, though the details are getting fuzzy at this point -- which gives the couples excuses to twirl each other about for a while. Anyway, this is a romantic comedy that not only doesn't suck, but actually works pretty well and manages to avoid directly insulting its audience's intelligence.

I Heart Huckabees: OK, this was just weird, and I don't remember it well enough to say much more than that. It was funny at times, and quizzically weird at other times, and has Dustin Hoffman and Lilly Tomlin acting particularly bizarre. It's one of those movies that's more like itself than anything else ever could be.

Sherlock Holmes: I was definitely in a room where this particular assemblage of exposed celluloid was playing, but I didn't end up paying all that much attention to it, since my laptop turned out to be more enticing almost every moment of the film. (Even The Wife found herself dozing on the next couch, without even the excuse of a distraction that I had.) The CGI was intrusive and obvious in all of the big action scenes, robbing the movie of even the tiny scraps of period feeling and detail it had managed to clabber together. Downey did the same sort of schtik as he did in Iron Man, to much less effect. Even the supposedly offensive homoeroticism was entirely subtext, and mostly buried subtext at that. Dull, flashy, forgettable, and mostly a waste of time.

Nine: Musicals rely very heavily on the willing suspension of disbelief, even more so on film than they do on stage. (Stages are so artificial to begin with that new artificialities barely register. But the movies mostly try to ape reality, or fake it, so staginess grates unless done exactly right.) Daniel Day-Lewis plays not-Federico Fellini, moping about when he's supposed to be preparing a new movie in the early '6os while a succession of gorgeous women perform production numbers in the theatre of his mind (and sleep with him, too, of course, in nearly all cases). The songs didn't register very strongly, though the choreography was nice. Day-Lewis, though, mopes far too much for a rich artsy type with more freedom than he knows what to do with and Penelope Cruz in his bed. The boy doth protest way too much.

California Dreamin': Not only is this European -- and we all know what that means -- but it's from an obscure corner of Europe (the former Yugoslavia), and by a noted director (Cristian Nemescu) who died before he could finish editing it. And the movie shows that: it could have used some tightening and focusing, but it also turned out to be less interesting and more Euro-dull than I'd hoped. A NATO train, with a troop of soldiers under the command of Armand Assante, is on its way to Kosovo in the late '90s, during the war. A local businessman holds up the train for reasons that are far too on-the-nose thematically to be believed. And the movie then wanders around for two hours of mostly gentle culture-clash stuff before turning 180 degrees for a less pleasant ending. The title only makes any sense in the last five minutes, and not a whole lot of sense even then. I was deeply disappointed, which may of course mean that I'm just a cretinous American who can't appreciate Fine Cinema.

What's Up, Doc?: After that, I felt the need to retreat to some silly '70s comedies that I hadn't seen in a long, long time. The Wife had never seen What's Up, Doc? -- a movie I watched a bunch of times as a l'il hornswoggler -- so I sat her down and we laughed our way through it. In its own odd way, it's the feminist version of all those modern shlubby-guy-gets-the-hot-girl movies: Barbra Streisand is radiant and compelling and smart and funny here, but she never was conventionally beautiful, and Ryan O'Neil was in the sweet spot of his own youthful hotness at that point. (Of course, he plays one of the world's great nerds, which undercuts my point strongly, but I'll pretend not to notice that.) This also was Madeleine Kahn's first movie, and she's great, too, as O'Neil's controlling, conventional fiancee. Heck, everyone is good in this -- it's full of vaguely familiar faces, ranging from Randy Quaid and John Hillerman to Kenneth Mars and Austin Pendleton. If you haven't seen What's Up, Doc? within the last twenty years, it's time for a booster shot.

The In-Laws: And then I felt like a silly comedy from the other end of the '70s. I haven't seen the recent remake, and quite likely never will, but it felt like time to see Peter Falk yelling "serpentine!" again and see Alan Arkin do that New York neurotic thing that no one did as well. (Richard Benjamin and Woody Allen come close, in their own ways, but no one beats Arkin. Hm, maybe I need to see a bunch of '70s Arkin movies next?) The plot doesn't make much sense, but that's the point: Falk's rumpled supposedly-CIA man is dragging Arkin's respectable dentist (just ahead of the wedding of their children to each other) through things that Arkin can't believe and would never expect. It's also got some great faces in minor roles, including an uncredited Merlin Olsen, deep in his bad-guy phase, as one of a pair of thugs that try to kill Arkin. Falk was never better in a movie than he was here, and his chemistry with Arkin is wonderful.

This Film Is Not Yet Rated: An agitprop documentary about the MPAA's ratings board; it definitely has a point of view to sell, and does a pretty good job of selling it. The movie could have used some more statistics (between big-studio R-rated films and indy NC-17 films; between violence that got an R and sex that got a NC-17), but the filmmakers would rather stake out the offices of the MPAA and "out" the raters, since that's more cinematic. So it has a good case to make, but spends its time being theatrically exciting rather than laying out the reasons for its case. It says obvious things to people like me, who would prefer to see more movies be more adult about human relationships (and I don't just mean sex) and have less violence, particularly cartoony violence. But most of America prefers cartoony violence to honest sex, it seems.

An Education: Carey Mulligan is excellent as an early '60s teen who suddenly discovers a wider world (when a oddly diffident older man starts dating her, with much less emphasis on seducing her than seems to make sense) and begins to question her priorities. She has some great speeches, and so do Emma Thompson (in a small role as her headmistress), Olivia Williams (as the severe schoolteacher this girl doesn't want to grow up to be), and Alfred Molina (as her blustering, controlling father). But this really is Mulligan's movie, and she runs away with it. The fact that it's based on a real story -- from a memoir by a British journalist -- only makes it that much more interesting. (And I should mention the screenwriter, Nick Hornby, who was responsible for all of those excellent speeches.)

Did You Hear About the Morgans?: We ran across a preview for this sometime recently, and The Wife expressed interest. So, like a dutiful husband -- I suppose I should really say "as a dutiful husband," right? -- I stuck it in the Netflix queue, and so we saw it Wednesday night. For an American romantic comedy, it's remarkably non-stupid -- that's not to say that it's even a good movie, since it really isn't, but it fits the parameters of the genre, gives a bunch of entertaining people work, and feeds Hugh Grant a series of excellent funny lines. Yes, it's cartoonish in every possible way, but I believe that's what the audience for a movie like this wants, so I'd have to consider it successful.
Listening to: The Builders And The Butchers - When It Rains
via FoxyTunes

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