Sunday, September 23, 2012

Film Journal: Week Ending 9/23/2012

Note:  What I think I'm going to do is write a review a day, but draw mainly on movies I saw 2-3 years ago.  Mileage may vary ( I'm sure many people know exactly what they think right away and never change that opinion), but for me it takes some digestion before I know whether the movie was something I really enjoyed, or something I just thought I enjoyed. Imagine, if you will, a Big Mac. You think you're enjoying it as you eat it, but later your body informs you that in fact, no, that was a molded hunk of cat food and pickle relish glued together with axle grease and chemical paste, and you really hated it. Some movies that I thought were interesting but flawed grow in my imagination over time, and never really leave me. Others that I may have thought I quite liked I can barely remember the basic details.  So anyway, are you bored yet? Let's do the reviews.

Thor (2011, Kenneth Branagh) **
Tho, I'm mutht thay, I'm feeling mighty thor. It bums me out that Branagh has been reduced to this (and, I supposed, to strutting around the Olympic opening ceremonies); it's like he's kept all of his trademark bombast and lost any of his trademark insight. This was the guy who as a young man nailed the Agincourt speech to the wall, and who found a startling new interpretation of something as hidebound as "to be or not to be." Anyway, Asgard at least looks cool and Hemsworth bellows admirably. On the other hand, Portman and Skarsgård are given zilch to do, Hopkins snores (literally) and picks up a check, and the plot is either too impenetrable or too dull to follow, and I'm not going back to figure out which it is. Here's what "The Avengers" could have been without the Whedon wit.

Bonnie and Clyde (1967, Arthur Penn) ***1/2 (A-)
I admit it, I'm embarrassed. This is, after all, one of the ten or fifty or at least 100 best films of all time, depending on who you ask. I suppose I don't quite see it that way -- which is not to say that I didn't like it a lot. It's a question of degree. It's certainly possible to have grim and dramatic elements cohere with more broadly comic ones, but it feels like this souffle was taken out of the oven a little early. Performances and most individual scenes are masterful (a cloud's shadow passing by in a moment of stunning serendipity immediately followed by an ominous family reunion, Clyde's attempted robbery of a closed bank, an aborted attempt at lovemaking), but I can't put the Parsons or Pollard performances (or especially the hilarious Gene Wilder/Evans Evans scene) into any sort of context with the sexual dysfunction or the occasional swipes at foreboding or bloody ending in a way that makes sense to me, and the (sporadic) attempt to make Bonnie and Clyde the voice of the Depression's oppressed and marginalized just seems ill-conceived, since they're obviously nothing more than brash idiots. Maybe my issue is that Penn seems simultaneously to attempt to send up and buy into the outlaw romanticism.

Warren Beatty just keeps fascinating me, though. Has there ever been another Matinee Sex God® who so consistently insisted on playing the buffoon?

Bottom Line: A very very good movie, but not the all-time Pantheon member it's been billed as. Still a stylistic landmark: I can see how this blew collective hair back in the late 60s.

Star Trek (2009, JJ Abrams) *** (B)
Pretty sure I reviewed this on this site already.

I don't know. I feel like I over-rated this at three stars. It was totally fun-watchable, but really dumb in a particular way that Star Trek usually isn't (not to say Trek can't be dumb, just not like this). Manages to look interesting, but ultimately the plot disappears into a wormhole of way too much 'whaaa?' Pine gives good Kirk (stupid, cocky, spiral-cut ham), Quinto Spocks it up effectively until the movie unkindly forces comparisons to Nimoy's original, but the rest of the cast gets short-shrift in favor of those two, making this episode 1 of How I Met Your Vulcan. Damn cool looking, though, lens flares and all.

Avatar (2009, James Cameron) **1/2 (C+)
It needs to be said. This movie takes itself far too seriously to allow for a MacGuffin as hilariously named as "unobtanium." Pretty clearly the Academy dodged a bullet not giving its highest prize to this thing, which I am betting plays much worse outside of the big screen, surround-sound (3D, for what it's worth) setting within which I experienced it.

Basically a breakthrough in tech and art direction in service of a storyline that would have been more sociopolitically offensive if it hadn't been so shopworn and ludicrous. For such a notoriously detail-oriented martinet, Cameron seems perversely oblivious to much of what his major plot beats are really saying. The Big Message finally boils down to either "white men make the best Injuns" or "you can destroy a girl's whole culture, but all will be forgiven if you get a bitchin' ride," which isn't exactly a great set of options. Meanwhile, the main character's actions, which include failing at any point to inform his lover or ANYBODY that they need to move to avoid genocide (which is, by the way, the entire point of his mission), make him the absolute opposite of the hero the film insists he is. That he takes that lover under the aforementioned false pretenses, within a culture that he already knows will view the fact of their physical union as a far more binding contract than he can possibly fulfill, seems not to matter to Cameron as much as the fact that the blockbuster cookbook requires the consummation of the love affair by the 2nd reel.

Still consistently breathtaking as spectacle, and I will have to give Cameron some props for at least sounding some of these anti-corporatist notes, albeit with all the subtlety and adroitness of a Thor vs. Hulk battle. I'd have probably appreciated this more as an exploratory piece with far less/no plot or dialogue, or if it didn't seem to think that it deserved the Nobel peace prize for a reductive ecological message.


Astin said...

Two stars too many for Avatar. One star too little for Thor.

Trek is about right. I've never gotten around to Bonnie & Clyde.

I disliked Avatar from about 4 minutes in. The opening sequence was great, then all downhill. The plot was trite and ham-handed, recycling from the Cameron catalogue repeatedly. He spent a decade on this film and couldn't be bothered with a less derivative script or a name other than "unobtanium"? The literal place-filler for sci-fi movies? Did he forget to do a find-replace before hitting print?

The acting was passable from Weaver, pretty solid from Ribisi, and cliché from there out. Except Worthington, who is possibly the most wooden and overrated actor of the past decade.

And the eco-plot, as you stated, kept hitting me with the sledgehammer of subtlety.

Visually it was every alien-world video game from the late 90's and early 00's. Pretty, but completely unoriginal.

What praise I do give it is for the leaps in technology. The mo-cap was by far the best seen at the time. It didn't suffer from the Zemeckis dead-eye plastic uncanny valley the world had been subjected to previously. The 3D could have been great if used as it was in the opening, as opposed to the unoriginal uselessness it became. That said, Cave of Forgotten Dreams came from that tech, so it's been useful. Unfortunately, every other movie ever has been cruddy 3D for the sake of being 3D since then.

Want to see a GOOD movie about flying dragons and respecting your environment and getting along with a native species? Watch How to Train Your Dragon. It's a good Avatar.

Andrew said...

When I watched HTTYD, I thought: "Huh, a better AVATAR."

The two stars are almost entirely for the visceral experience, which for me carried the movie past many sins. In fact, I'm guessing that AVATAR is Exhibit A in "why it's good to let time pass before reviewing," since based on those elements I'd have probably given it another full star right after seeing it (maybe I'm not playing the right video games). At this point the buzz has worn off and what I remember is some pretty thin gruel covered with yummy marshmallow bits.

I'm guessing the movie is almost totally useless in home video without a state-of-the-art setup.

I think Cameron thought he was being clever with "unobtanium," so don't book James Cameron for your next open-mic.

Thor bored me silly, which, again, I saw it on my quite small (by today's standards) TV screen. Imagine if I'd first seen Avatar that way.

You should see Bonnie & Clyde. It's quite good.