My Week in Movies (4/11-4/16)
That’s right folks, we’re back up and running. Spent the last several weeks on a rough schedule for a big 3D conversion job which, although the work is completed, I don’t think I’m yet permitted to name here. As with PIRANHA, once the project is public knowledge, I’ll be able to tell you I did some work on…well, you’ll see.
Between the long hours — leaving me almost no non-work waking time — and the eye fatigue — which made looking at a backlit screen the last thing I wanted to do when I could find a few more hours in the day — I haven’t watched a movie in weeks. I could’ve had some movies on while I was working, but when watching movies for the first time, I always want to give them my full attention. It was all podcasts and audiobooks for me.
Anyway, the project ended just in time to free me up for NAB earlier this week, so I had a little Vegas time to decompress; the whites of my eyes are actually white again, so I got that going for me. Which means it’s time to get back to the business of learning my business.
HEAT — It was tough to decide what movie should break my film-fast. An old favorite? An undemanding, goofy comedy? I decided to go with a long-ish and challenging classic that I’ve been meaning to see for a long time and couldn’t quite find the time before.
First off, THE DARK KNIGHT is totally “HEAT with Batman in it.” It was a comparison I heard many times when TDK came out, but not one I could weigh for myself since I hadn’t seen HEAT. But the comparison is absolutely apt. The shooting style, the tone, the pacing, even quite a few structural elements came right out of this movie and landed in Gotham. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that as a negative.
In the same way that watching GOODFELLAS made me go, “Oh, that’s what Tarantino’s been doing,” watching HEAT made me appreciate the brilliance of the original work — I mean, seriously, directors practically get called “visionary” now for shooting at a Dutch angle, but was anyone making movies like HEAT before HEAT? — and also appreciate the wisdom behind Nolan’s decision to say “Look, someone’s already shown us how to make this movie, our job is just to not fuck it up.”
(SERENITY also owes a smaller debt to HEAT, as the film’s opening heist is essentially identical to the HEAT bank robbery in scheme, and even some of the things they say during the heist.)
What’s there to say about HEAT, other than it’s an — it’s the — urban crime epic. It is long, so long that occasionally I would forget about entire characters and subplots until they came back around, but unlike in most films this feels like a feature instead of a bug. The main characters are all in over their heads, trying to keep track of a thousand things as everything unravels around them and things they’d pushed to the back of their minds come crashing back to the fore. We’re in there with them. It works. You feel the length, but in the way you feel a big, satisfying meal.
It’s a meal that’s perhaps just slightly overseasoned — Pacino goes Pacino a bit too hard in a few places, apparently the vestige of an abandoned “cocaine addiction” subplot. The other characters seem to be taken aback by it too, so while a little baffling it’s at least acknowledged. But all things considered, it’s certainly not enough to ruin the film. It’s not even enough to put a damper on the brilliance of Pacino’s performance beyond those moments, nor distract from the performances of the others in the ensemble.
If you haven’t seen it, go do so right now. It’s its own masterclass in filmmaking. And if you have seen it, you already knew that.
IP MAN* — I did need some comfort food, so I treated myself to a recent big-deal Hong Kong beat-em-up. Donnie Yen is not tremendously well-known here in the States — he’s not gotten the name recognition of Jackie Chan or Jet Li outside of martial arts fans — but he’s a superstar of martial arts on par with both of them, and he kicks every ass that needs it with a panache that does not disappoint. The story is a little melodramatic (though based on the true story of the man who popularized Wing Chun style kung fu), but we all know I didn’t come here for the story. Loved it.
DAYBREAKERS* — I did come to this one for the story. In our postmodern age of the internets, more than one geek article has gone around crunching the numbers to wonder how long it would take, if vampires did exist, before there were more of them than us; and how long until they reached Peak Blood and had a resource crisis on their hands. This forms the premise of DAYBREAKERS, and despite a bit of vampire fatigue in recent years that sounded like a damned original premise for a vampire film.
The movie is…alright. Aside from being vampires, nothing else about the human race has really changed. Most of us still commute to shitty office jobs we don’t really want to do, cogs in the machine, only now people drag themselves to work at the crack of dusk and posters of Uncle Sam have outsized canines added to them. I think the filmmakers did it that way on purpose, but I’m not entirely sure why.
Is the theme stated in the line of dialogue “Life’s a bitch, and then I don’t die”? Is the idea of the movie — which involves a cure for vampirism — that death is what gives life meaning? What about the fact that the vampires are behaving just like they did before they became vampires? Are we supposed to see that as a positive, that our essential humanity can’t be corrupted, that we don’t lose our heart even if it stops beating? Or as a negative, that we’re already acting like cold, soulless bloodsuckers so what would be the difference?
I don’t really know, the movie doesn’t give me much to go on one way or the other. It just puts that vision of the world out there and says “Well, here it is.” I think the movie could have explored whatever its theme was supposed to be (there’s sort of a class warfare thing in play? I guess?) while thinking more imaginatively about what a vampiric hegemony would really entail, for the vampires and the remaining humans alike. Your mileage may vary, but in my view, simply replacing “2% milk” with “20% blood” in the coffee shops (they still drink coffee? Yes. Why? Um, whatever) doesn’t really cut it.
Overall it’s a cool idea and the production value is nice but, while the movie manages to raise a lot of interesting questions and ideas, it deals with all of them only superficially. It’s one of those movies that feels almost like it has no third act, a lot of set-up and then a quick and unsatisfying (unless you’re a gorehound) payoff, in an ending which very nearly manages to cancel itself out. Character motivations are sometimes confusing or downright senseless, the “cure” is overly convenient and doesn’t make much sense, but it’s a relatively short movie and Sam Neill is one of those actors whom you can throw into any genre picture and class the joint right up. He’s got the chops for Shakespeare, but he still takes schlocky genre roles sometimes and I have to conclude that it’s because he loves doing it. He sure as hell looks like he’s having fun.
If nothing else, it’s interesting as an exercise to try to consider how it might have been improved; and with the recent trend of “horror” being synonymous with “torture porn” it was a breath of fresh air for this horror fan, if only a shallow one.
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION* — I’m a big Christopher Guest fan. WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, BEST IN SHOW, and A MIGHTY WIND are all hysterical. As a guy with pretensions of Hollywood insider-ness, you’d think Guest turning his satirical eye on Hollywood’s navel-gazing awards culture would be right up my alley. I’d still love to see that movie. This is not it.
The “Hollywood is fake and shallow” gags are the stale ones we’ve all seen before. Pop quiz: you have a scene with an agent telling an upset client that there is nothing, nothing more important than said client’s career.
What’s the next beat in the scene?
If you said “the agent’s phone rings just as the client starts to speak, and he takes the call and blows the client off completely,” then this movie holds no surprises — and as a result, no laughs — for you. The whole thing is just a series of the same such tired old tropes.
This film does not utilize the mockumentary conceit of Guest’s other films, but plays out as a more traditional narrative. This is, as it turns out, death. If you’re not familiar with how Guest rolls, his films don’t really have a “script,” per se, more of an outline of scenes and what has to happen within them. His regular stable of actors are all improv pros, so they just go out there and inhabit the scene and meander their way through whatever the scene is meant to accomplish.
In the “mockumentary” movies I mentioned above, these scenes often play out in fairly long takes. Something about knowing that they’re having this conversation for the first time, that neither knows exactly what the other is going to say and that occasionally they’ll intentionally throw each other curve balls gives every scene a vitality that’s hard to explain. It makes every punchline, even the somewhat tepid ones, hilarious, just because you can see the moment that they manage to throw their partner in the scene for a loop.
But FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION eschews this style in favor of more traditional shot/reverse shot over-the-shoulder coverage, and basic tennis match cutting, back and forth as each character speaks. This sucks all the nervous, tightrope-walking energy out of every conversation, making me so aware of how each line and each reaction was probably its own take and could have been refined and revised over and over. Suddenly the kind of line that was so funny because it was as much a non sequitur to the other actors as to the audience is only a non sequitur to the audience. Death.
There are a few moments where a scene is allowed to just play out between two characters in front of the camera, and those moments have some of the spark of other Guest films, but it isn’t enough to save this one.
But it’s worse than just not being funny. In Guest’s other films, the characters may be absurd and pathetic, their goals and motivations incredibly esoteric, but there was always a humanity to them. The movie had an infectious affection for these silly creatures. By the end of BEST IN SHOW there were clear people to root for and people to root against. By the end of A MIGHTY WIND, I was on the edge of my seat waiting to see how Mitch and Mickey were going to handle the finale of “Kiss at the End of the Rainbow,” despite the fact that I had never heard of them, their history, or the song before the movie (because none of it exists outside of the movie).
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION, by contrast, harbors an open contempt for pretty much every character on the screen. I can get that Hollywood fakery is closer to Guest’s heart than the travails of the regional dog show contestant, and that maybe he’s got an axe to grind. I could see him going after suits and agents the way he does and cheering him on.
But a character like Catherine O’Hara’s oh-so-subtly-named Marilyn Hack is, in my view, totally undeserving of the treatment the movie gives her. She’s a washed up, insecure, aging actress pining for the glory days of youth and looking for some, any kind of recognition or acknowledgement that she still matters. She’s pathetic, sure, but I feel pity for her, not loathing. She’s not a great person, but neither is she awful. So when her much sought-after recognition is dangled before her — when this comprises the entire basis of the film’s plot — before being snatched away at the climax, I don’t find it funny and I experience no satisfying schadenfreude. The movie gives me no reason to like her, but I also have no reason to hate her, not enough to wish upon her the kind of psychological devastation she experiences. Many of the characters go through similar “arcs,” if we want to use the word charitably, but she gets the worst of it by far.
I get that people kind of love a trainwreck, especially when it comes to celebrities. I’m not one of those people generally, but I get the psychology. Some folks see celebrities and feel like they’ve got the good life and said folks don’t and it’s not fair; and it’s a boost to the ego to see that hey, maybe they don’t have such a good life after all.
This movie isn’t about characters like that. It’s not like seeing arrogant shits get their just desserts. They start at the bottom, and then the movie puts them underfoot and grinds.
It isn’t funny. It’s just mean. A comedy shouldn’t make me want to weep bitterly for the cruel fate of its characters. I wanted to see A MIGHTY WIND about the Academy Awards. Instead I got REQUIEM FOR A DREAM without drugs or visual flair. Hated it.
*Available on Netflix Instant Watch as of 4/16/10