Sunday, August 03, 2008

Week of July 7th:

Breakfast of Champions (1999): Kurt Vonnegut's great, grumpy midlife-crisis novel is about as close to unadaptable into cinema as a novel can get because it's propelled almost entirely by Vonnegut's omniscent narration. Any director brave enough to attempt such an endeavor would need to recognize that the plot of the work is secondary to the tone (the book continues for some fifty to sixty pages after the climax of its ostensible plot); as such, capturing a mood and a point of view would be more important than moving the characters from Point A to Point B. Alan Rudolph's unfairly reviled run at the novel, then, can despite its faults (of which there are many) be seen as a interesting interpretation. The tone vacillates from mugging chaos to quiet despair, and while the more outsized portions of the film don't really work, the contemplative and downcast scenes work about as perfectly as they could be hoped to work. Acting is erratic as well (Omar Epps turns in a puzzling man-child performance that might be the worst thing anyone's done in front of a camera in the last ten years), but Rudolph gets a marvel of a performance out of Bruce Willis. As faltering car salesman Dwayne Hoover, Willis tilts his natural tendencies towards wiseassery and smirkiness just enough so that it feels desperate, the behavior of a man who's losing the battle to paper over the cracks in his carefully-controlled facade. Willis and Albert Finney, as misanthropic sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout, represent the true soul of the narrative, and everything surrounding them is mere noise; their ultimate meeting propels both men towards epiphanies that preserve the ideas of Vonnegut's narrative while remaining a bit more hopeful. (If "Make me young" in the novel is a cry of helplessness in the face of the feeling that your life has been wasted, the film frames it as a serene striving towards a paradise that exists beyond the edges of a human's fragile mental stability.) Rudolph's film is imperfect, but to say he doesn't at root get at and communicate what the story's about is to be obtuse. Grade: B-

The Edge of Heaven (2008): Hermetic and didactic in equal measure, Fatih Akin's contribution to the irksomely popular everyone's-connected genre brings nothing to the party that wasn't already covered as badly as possible by Babel and Crash except a different set of languages. Clumsy screenwriting rife with enough contrivance and coincidence to gag a goat sink this one with a quickness. Just the "Temple of Love" scene in Head-On is superior to the entirety of this. Grade: C-

Funny Games (2008): Even more so than Gus Van Sant's Psycho, Michael Haneke's English-language Xerox of his notorious audience-baiting anti-thriller proves that shooting the exact same movie twice won't result in the exact same movie twice. It could be a consequence of the act of meticulous, fussy recreation or it could be a mere quirk of translation, but what felt mean and unexpected in Austria comes off as studied in the United States. Furthermore, Michael Pitt is a poor substitute for Arno Frisch -- his particular brand of smarm comes off as foppish, not menacing, with his condescension borne out of haughtiness instead of cruelty. That said, the material is still hideously effective, and if Pitt falls asleep on the job, the remainder of the cast more than ably picks up his slack. Especially Brady Corbet. An intellectual curiosity, to be sure, but it's still Funny Games. Grade: B

Hancock (2008): This movie would probably be a lot more interesting if it knew what exactly it wanted to do. Some of the comedy works (when it's not being blunted by the editing) and some of the ruminatory responsibility-of-heroism drama works (when it's not being subsumed in treacle), but the tones manage to mesh exactly once ("Oh, no you didn't!"); most of the time, it's like watching two films that keep interrupting each other. Acting is uneven as well: Will Smith once again subverts his image to great effect, but Jason Bateman's coasting and Charlize Theron turns in the single worst performance of her career. Then there's Peter Berg's horrid direction. Everyone's on Christopher Nolan's stick for his visually confused action scenes, but he looks like Don fucking Siegel when compared to the butchery Berg's whipped up for this film. His whip-blur action direction looks like he's trying to get his Greengrass on, but all it tells me is that he couldn't direct a bullet out of a gun. Despite all the negativity, I think this film does have moments (the bank robbery centerpiece is pretty great). But it could have been way better. Grade: C+

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008): Superior in pretty much every way to the first Hellboy for one reason -- Guillermo Del Toro has stopped pretending he cares about the human characters in this universe. Everything that works about this film (the cleaner, less splayed-about plotting; the mind-melting visuals; the villain who is actually given enough screen time to be a presence) stems from Del Toro concentrating almost solely on the freakier aspects of the world with which he's playing. Still not perfect -- Abe's lovelorn subplot seems ill-advised, for one -- but at least this second installment delivers on the rip-snorting entertainment/eye-candy gluttony promised by its offbeat premise. Grade: B

The Importance of Being Earnest (1952): Michael Redgrave was the shit. Oscar Wilde was the shit. Anthony Asquith was, if not the shit, a perfectly solid British director who could be counted on to class up the projects he took. Thus, this movie is mostly the shit: a well-timed, expertly acted and sharply funny filmic adaptation of a theatrical perennial. Rupert Everett and everyone else involved with that asinine redux that came out a few years back should be bloody well ashamed. Grade: B+

Lifeboat (1944): Now this is how you do propaganda, folks. Taut, skillfully crafted close-quarters thriller never lets its ideological concerns get in the way of Alfred Hitchcock's intent to provide grand, exciting entertainment. Hitchcock's direction is typically masterful, making the most of the setting's claustrophobia and using physical crowding as a metaphor for mental/ideological friction; John Steinbeck's screenplay, meanwhile, works with subtlety in unexpected ways (even the German villain is not shown in mere black-and-white terms) while parceling out its plant-and-payoffs in expert fashion. Surprisingly gritty and violent for the era, as well -- the impromptu amputation must have been a real jolt in the '40s. Terrific stuff, really; I think I'm gonna go buy some war bonds now... Grade: A-

Shine a Light (2008): Part concert documentary, part meditation on aging. Martin Scorsese's filmed record of a two-night stand by the Rolling Stones is foremost just that -- recorded concert footage. As such, it's a pretty good entry in the genre; the Stones aren't in their heyday anymore, but they can still blow the hat off the house when they get rolling ("Sympathy for the Devil," "Brown Sugar," an awesome version of "Champagne and Reefer" with Buddy Guy) and I wish I had could muster up the kind of energy that Mick Jagger, a man nearly forty years my senior, can apparently summon at will. But there's no getting around the fact that he is old enough to collect Social Security, and there's also no denying that the first couple of songs ("Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Shattered") find the band struggling to find their groove. Scorsese deals with this gap between what the band was and what they are now by splicing in interview footage from various points in their history, so that their progress from rock-n-roll bad boys to icons/traveling nostalgia act is always in the back of the mind. Considering how often the Stones' music pops up in Scorsese's films, there's a certain level where one could infer that Scorsese is thinking not just of their march away from youth but his own as well. Shine a Light is a blast, yet there's something slightly melancholic about it. Not for Jack White, though -- he looks like the happiest boy in the universe when he shows up for his onstage guest shot. Grade: B+


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