Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A bit of near-recent viewing

Observe and Report (Jody Hill 2009) - It will take a second viewing to determine whether this is a minor masterpiece or if surprise just made it seem that way. It’s certainly the worst marketed movie in months - two people walked out of my screening and there surely were plenty more elsewhere. The marketing folk clearly thought they had no choice but to sell the film as an underdog comedy, the type where some goofball kook clashes with authority and chases a disdainful girl before eventually triumphing and discovering that his true love was the other girl who stood by him the whole time. There are hundreds of these and in fact Observe and Report structurally is yet another. The key difference is that writer/director Hill played it closer to reality - for this story to actually occur what would these people have to be like? The answer of course is that they’re mentally unstable or at best self-centered and mean. This is a film with no likable characters and that in itself certainly deserves a hallelujah or two. Not to mention a moment of violence more shocking than any Saw clone. It’s still a bit slapdash and the low budget shows through at times but we could use more abrasive, unsettling films like this.

Star Trek (J.J. Abrams 2009) - Basically a near-perfect Summer Movie which if you flip it also means basically disposable. The updated retooling of a show that was pretty bad to begin with does have its own interest, butressed with most actors referencing their predecessor but not being entirely overwhelmed by them. One oddity is that the original ethnic composition was based on late 60s prominence and politics (or at least a Hollywood hack’s version) but it doesn’t seem quite right today. Would it have been too much trouble to make McCoy Hispanic? Or Chekhov something else entirely. Sulu seems to have been switched from Japanese to Korean or is that just extra-textual. Watching the film, though, you can see the other calculations. Viewers wait for Vulcan to be saved but then it’s not, clearly intended to show that the new franchise isn’t bound by the past but then again the alternate universe talk was a way to avoid seeming too arrogant by claiming to have superceded what went before (not to mention keeping the fanboys happy - or less disgruntled since they generally seem to dislike this). You can see the comic relief coming right on schedule. The only thing that seems too far off is the ludicrously random encounter with future Spock on Hoth (or whatever it’s been retitled for the Trek universe).

The Inglorious Bastards (Enzo Castellari 1978) - I thought maybe this was something I’d seen during the 80s when I was plowing through a lot of Eurotrash videotapes. But apparently not. Basically a variation on The Dirty Dozen it’s surprisingly effective with a fairly tight story and a reasonably imaginative visual sense. Of course it’s also fairly silly at moments with most characters jerking guns around as if they were waterhoses and an overreliance on coincidence but as far as Eurotrash Dirty Dozen ripoffs go you couldn’t ask for much more.

Le Voyage de Ballon Rouge (Hou Hsiao-Hsien 2007) - Hou’s first completely non-Taiwanese film feels like a mistake. It’s still recognizably his work - the decentered narrative, long stretches of real-time, deflected focus on everyday life - but the entire thing is blank. Instead of close attention the film just seems to go on and on without really connecting the two main stories or doing much with the self-reflexive idea of having a student filmmaker as a main character. Maybe it was just some chemical reaction in my brain the night I saw this and a second viewing would place it more in line with his other work (I’d rate City of Sadness as one of the dozen best-ever films). But probably not.

The Heartbreak Kid (Bobby & Peter Farrelly 2007) - How about this for a plot: On his honeymoon a guy decides that maybe he doesn’t really like his new wife after all so he chases another girl before deciding to stalk her across two countries. I suspect the Farrellys thought this was somehow romantic but they’ve ended up creating one of the most brutally misogynist films from Hollywood in years. Rather than helping or even dealing with his wife’s problems, Stiller’s character basically abandons her while his new flame seems to fall into a marriage of convenience, his buddy’s wife is a shrew and everybody else just throws out the invective. Now I can deal with the misogyny in Two and a Half Men because the show does acknowledge that, however unwillingly and superficially. And also because it’s funny which this film definitely is not. About the only person who doesn’t get sunk in this is Michelle Monaghan who brings a kind of unforced naturalness. I haven’t seen the original film but am guessing that Elaine May could never have gone this far wrong (even the overbearing music is a mistake).

Mamma Mia! (Phyllida Lloyd 2008) - I now have no eyebrows from gazing unflinchingly into the firey pits of Hell itself. This is surely one of the all-time most effective brain-deadening, eye-lacerating, puppy-killing movies, something that can’t even be called a botch because the original idea of a musical based on Abba songs was so inhuman that a sympathetic translation would have made little difference. Then again the producers were pegging this on a nobody named Amanda Seyfried in the lead despite no discernable talent or screen presence. A sock puppet would have been more effective. Director Lloyd also clearly never saw a musical before, using awkward cutting for dance sequences and having little idea how to meld music and spoken story (which considering that these songs have nothing to do with any story would have been a challenge for anybody). There is one moment that shows what might have been - when Brosnan starts singing “S.O.S.” the friction created by a non-singer attempting the song fits the mood perfectly and while I wouldn’t expect an entire musical to be cast with such actors it wouldn’t hurt for somebody somewhere to have realized that musicals and operas have never been about pretty tunes, at least not the good ones.