Saturday, March 06, 2010

Recently Seen

A big difference between Paul Blart: Mall Cop and a lot of Judd Apatow stuff is that the former has a good time with 'mall culture' and its space (like Romero's Dawn of the Dead), while the latter just figures it as a form of contemporary naturalism.


That said, I have been persuaded recently, finally, to watch with Freaks & Geeks (I'm not quite finished with the entirety of its run), which Apatow had a hand in. It is as amazingly good as most stuff bearing his name is just grimace-inducingly bad.


For the first or second time in a decade, I've seen five Best Picture nominees before Oscar night. Unfortunately this is the year they extended the field back to ten. (Would you like my rundown? Avatar: eh. Hurt Locker: eh. Inglourious Basterds: some strong elements. Up in the Air: some strong elements, fine middlebrow cinema.) Just today I watched District 9 and it's quite something. Stupid, sure. But also clever. Both 'anti-apartheid' and 'blatantly racist'? You bet. It's one of those films designed to be "read," "interpreted," whose ostensible progressivism can really be taken in any number of ways. It's nice that non-whiteness doesn't necessarily, ultimately signify irrationality, mythicism, etc., here ... though that's the take-away from certain isolated scenes. At the same time, there's a tone to the critique, as though multicultural liberalism is the blind flaw and enemy of humanity, the worst and weakest of (codedly white) militant liberalism (which is good, well-meaning, sane). There's a line to be crossed that situates criticism of "liberal" policies not anymore from a progressive standpoint but rather from the standpoint of downright hatred, opposition, fear. (Comedian Louis CK, whose stand-up I've also been sampling recently, exploits this very line.) The best thing about District 9 is the savvy with which it plunders generic codes (surveillance footage, handheld cameras, allegorical sf) as well as the sense of humor it maintains throughout, and the fact that the narrative never totally succumbs to a central conflict theory, but rather feels 'on the run.' The freedom in this respect is kind of breathtaking. I would say it's the best film for the adolescent male demographic featuring CGI bug-aliens since Starship Troopers.


Shutter Island, maybe my favorite Scorsese film in 15 years, is a bit like David Fincher's Panic Room: shallow, genre-bound, beautiful, trying (successfully in my case) to play and tug upon deep-seated feelings. I liked it much more than I expected, and probably a bit more even than Roman Polanski's very fine, quite beautiful anti-Blairite film The Ghost Writer. (Polanski's is a serious genre movie with actual political commentary; Shutter Island is openly a 'mere' entertainment—and I wouldn't dispute that label—that is nevertheless vastly more intelligent than most pro critics ever grant mere entertainment to be.) One problem is that everyone expects or hopes the culture industry product they like to also align with their political sympathies on some level, and to express their political (dis)tastes. Sometimes this is the case, but not always, and rarely is great art (especially when we deal with cinema) distinctly aligned with a viable political critique. (It exists in the off-spaces; its operationalized in its afterlives through real people in real contexts.) Especially as politics change but a film is not as open to rearticulation in the same sense that a play is (or even a novel, perhaps?).


The last multiplex-type film I saw that was roughly as bad, as bored with itself, as cynical, as The Wolfman (Joe Johnston, 2010) was Sherlock Holmes (Guy Ritchie, 2009). Though the latter, at least, had Robert Downey, Jr., in its corner. Iron Man 2 is probably going to be absolutely awful, but ... the first third of Iron Man was quite decent, the only worthwhile blockbuster superhero cinema I know from the past ten years, aside from the first half-hour of Batman Begins (fascistic-militaristic but at least openly, interestingly so) and the first two Spider-Man films (Raimi delivers minor plastic fun). OK, I didn't bother to see Watchmen, readers let me know if this is a serious omission on my part.


Jake said...

OK, I didn't bother to see Watchmen, readers let me know if this is a serious omission on my part.

It is the movie that spoofs the superhero genre in a dark, cynical way, I guess.

The Other Jake said...

The opening credits are worth catching on YouTube. It goes rapidly downhill after that.

As a Faris fan, you must have seen Observe And Report, right? Not strictly an Apatow film, but in the same orbit -- though no-one could call it "naturalism".

Always gladdened by mentions of Louis CK. What did you think of his sitcom?

Nathan said...

As solid middle-brow entertainment goes, Hellboy II is pretty glorious.

Jaime said...

Zach, you seem to be covering the same ground as I. My reactions are almost totally identical, although I was much more fond of the Polanski than the Scorsese, and was less kindhearted towards DISTRICT 9 (but I did think Sharlto Copley was excellent). Oh, and I don't have anything nice to say about UP IN THE AIR.

As The Other Jake suggests, OBSERVE AND REPORT has a great turn by Faris.

Comics: Louis CK is essential. Although Chris Rock has been hyped to ridiculous levels, I can't deny enjoying his work as well: unlike most comics, his routines are far more about rigidly dictating audience response (rather than facilitating interaction, as you might see with Demetri Martin, or the late Mitch Hedberg), and executing a deliberately timed, essay-form joke on a given topic. His best work (for instance, "N***ers V. Black People") has become iconic.

Other essential comics include Brian Regan. Like a verbal Tati, Regan mines the rich territory of the childlike silliness of much of adult life, as well as his memories of growing up in a family of all boys. His best stuff takes you over the moon. His material is almost totally G-rated and he does brilliant imitations of animals, machines, and people losing their minds. He got started in the mid-'90s when Jim Carrey was the rubber-face to beat, but in retrospect, Jim Carrey is a poor man's Brian Regan.

Demetri Martin - one of the better heirs of Steven Wright-style deadpan humor. Learned a bit about a concept known as "paraprosdokians," i.e. phrases or words that take on new meaning with expanded context.

Mitch Hedberg - similar to Steven Wright, heavy reliance on finding humor in normal concepts made ridiculous. Died of an overdose in 2005. Many of his performances seem almost on the verge of falling apart, and, knowing how he died, and similar to listening to old Lenny Bruce routines, a key dynamic of his act has to do with wondering if he'll be able to keep it together. Hilarious stuff, but troubling all the same.

Greg Giraldo - going solely by his 2006 album, "Good Day to Cross a River," I didn't think I'd stump for Giraldo, whose observational, foul-mouthed, bitter humor seemed utterly conventional, except for rare stretches of greatness. But I've recently gotten into his 2009 album, "Midlife Vices," which contains passages of total, total brilliance. Giraldo is at his best when he goes off on absurd, lengthy tangents, packing a dozen ideas and offshoots in the space of 20-30 seconds, and in one of my favorites, he take the simple premise of restaurant employees singing "Happy Birthday" to patrons to get inside the head of an illegal immigrant dishwasher carrying out an internal monologue lambasting the anti-immigrant debate in the US. His riffs on texting, John McCain in the final stretches of Campaign '08, and Obama as an emasculated reality show star trying to negotiate nuclear disarmament, and others, are also brilliant.

Comedy Central staple Lewis Black is almost always a great, deliberately paced storyteller; as is David Cross. Cross's story of the life of the gold flake atop his expensive, exclusive dessert at the Trump Building is simply majestic.

Zach, if you enjoyed THE WIRE, check out its HBO prototype, THE CORNER.


Hey, if we're going back as far as 2008, I may have mentioned SPEED RACER before, but let me do so again. It is absolutely great, without qualification or apology. I have also been going back through Johnny To's filmography: the best of a strong lot is his EXILED (2006), although, Zach, I might suggest for you MAD DETECTIVE (2007), which he co-directed with Wai Ka-fai. And a half dozen others.

I had the chance to go on and on about wonderful Joe Dante films and TV work - potentially *to* Joe Dante himself, if he read it - on Kehr's blog. Key "discoveries" include INNERSPACE, THE SECOND CIVIL WAR, and EXPLORERS.

Ryland Walker Knight said...

_Watchmen_ made me angry for 3 hours.

Jake said...

After seeing Mall Cop I have less of an idea about what you're talking about.

Jon Hastings said...

I probably liked District 9 a bit more than you did, but I think it's important to note that it isn't just an anti-apartheid movie, it's a post-apartheid movie. The central metaphor doesn't sit still for any one reading. For example, I think the audience (or at least a South African audience) is meant to "read" the aliens/District 9 work as also representing the flood of Zimbabwean refugees who have have come to South Africa and who are in conflict with the native black South Africans. Then you have the concetration camp images of District 10 - which act to remind the (Afriakner?) audience that the British invented the concentration camp to house the Boer: the aliens aren't just an "other" to the Afrikaners but also a symbolic reflection of their ancestors. Depending on the angle from which we look at the central metaphor, we get different answers to Lenin's fundamental political question - "Who - whom?" and the power of the movie is that it isn't tied down to any single reading.

I liked Watchmen, although I think it has quite a few flaws and it falls short of the original Moore/Gibbons comic. (But no farther than the Spider-Man movies fall from the original Ditko/Lee comics...)

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

I'll paraphrase RWK up there and say Watchmen made me irked and bored for about 3 hours. It's interesting that, in trying to copy Gibbons' compositions and in streamlining Moore's density, what the movie comes up with is exactly what they were attacking: the mild fascism inherent in the superhero genre. It's as sure of itself as Moore and Gibbons' comic book is ambivalent about everything, even its plot (there's a reason it interrupts itself for the pirate comic every now and then). The level of detail in Gibbons' drawing style, which I remember turned me off a little when I first picked the book up, almost undermines the action of each comic book frame; there are so many things going on to distract the eyes. Highlighting certain aspects of the composition, giving Watchmen momentum, loses the point. It is, perversely, an adaptation that has little to do with the original largely because it attempts to "replicate it in a cinematic style." Aside from the section of the film devoted to Dr. Manhattan's early years, I'd say it's pretty worthless.

However, as far as movies that (as Jake said) "spoof the superhero genre in a dark, cynical way," I'd actually like to stand up for Peter Berg's Hancock, or at leas the first hour or so of it.

ZC said...

OK, lots of comments to respond to!

On Watchmen - I have read a fraction of the comic itself, and liked it a fair amount (much to my surprise, just like I recently caught up with Wall-E--which I was dreading--and which warmed my ogre heart). But all the movie trailers just looked awful. Plodding seriousness. I have heard good things about the opening credits though ...

Other Jake - I haven't seen Observe and Report yet, but it's in the top 20 or so of my Netflix queue. As for Louis CK's sitcom ... again, don't know it.

Nathan, I forgot about those Hellboy movies. I liked a bit of one that I caught on TV.

Jaime, thanks for the comic recommendations - I've done a bit of YouTube sampling and will do more. I love Johnnie To (the Election films are quite something; really want to see Sparrow, and probably should revisit Breaking News), but wasn't in the right frame of mind when I tried to watch Speed Racer--I quit after 30 minutes. I admit it's not high-priority for me, but it is something I'm willing to sit down with again. Several people whose tastes I respect seem to think it's a good, honest movie.

Jake - what isn't clear? (Not a rhetorical question--help me clarify!) I think that a movie like Paul Blart makes the mall seem a little bit ridiculous, but also potentially fun, particularly when it's used in the ways it's not primarily meant to be used (i.e., no money exchange, cf. Dawn of the Dead's awesomeness). I think some of it has to do with the fact of the characters' working there. I don't get this vibe from Apatow (I'm thinking of 40 Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up specifically). Maybe it's hazy memory. But my impression is that the chain store world of Apatow is just a backdrop, a setting for jokes, and consumerism is just the way of life. Whereas in Paul Blart (a dumb film, a nothing film, but a charmingly goofy, mildly funny and moderately honest one) the characters have to contend. One of the implicit commandments in bad strains of todays 'smart-dumb' comedy is that you should never, ever take your job seriously because it's, like, beneath us, man. Well Paul Blart is kind of a fuck-you to the sons-of-the-bourgeoisie underbelly to that kind of sentiment ...

(For a relevant discussion, see also:

Jon, I think you've hit it on the nose with District 9 - it's slippery!

Ignatiy, I'll put Hancock on the maybe-see list. Remind me to tell you a mildly amusing anecdote about it's production sometime ...

Jaime said...

Zach, no one was more surprised than me that I loved SPEED RACER. It is legitimately not for everyone, of course, but I was most alarmed by its straightforward treatment of high emotions: grief, longing, disappointment, elation. And for its manipulation of the digital landscape, it shows up AVATAR in almost every way.

I was so inspired that I committed to rewatching the MATRIX trilogy. Not a 100% life-changing re-evaluation but I'm glad I did it - I like the three films more with fresh eyes. (Actually, I skipped the third movie until just recently.) The first MATRIX, in fact, I came to like a lot as a film about - wait for it - talking.


WATCHMEN - I loved the novel (who doesn't?) but love V FOR VENDETTA and FROM HELL quite a bit more. The latter is a staggering piece achievement.

Ignatiy's assessment of Snyder's film is spot-on, and far more satisfying than the other pans I've read (and there are a lot). Snyder's mistake was making a "faithful" adaptation - for which he can't be blamed; the movie versions of FROM HELL, VENDETTA, and EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN are truly vile and have nothing to do with their source material - instead of a good movie.

The opening credits are okay. What I really liked, what actually made it tough to decide to abandon Snyder altogether, was the Dr. Manhattan sequence. It's the only part of the film that conveys both the shifting layers **and** the sadness of parts of the Moore/Gibbons novel.

Jake said...

Jake - what isn't clear? (Not a rhetorical question--help me clarify!) I think that a movie like Paul Blart makes the mall seem a little bit ridiculous, but also potentially fun, particularly when it's used in the ways it's not primarily meant to be used (i.e., no money exchange, cf. Dawn of the Dead's awesomeness).

I guess I was too dense to read into that aspect of the movie versus Apatow's to see that. Thanks for elaborating further. That does seem like a good and uplifting thing about the Mall Cop movie. I thought the beginning of the movie was surprisingly decent until the dreaded evil take-over plot kicked in.

Aaron W. Graham said...

Adding one more comedian to Jaime's admirable list: Patton Oswalt, the voice of Remy the rat in RATATOUILLE and the star of last year's indie BIG FAN, but also a terrific (and prone to logorrhoea) stand-up act.

In addition to his comedic talent (and not that it matters), he's also a well-versed cinephile: I've heard him extol the virtues of Don Siegel in a couple of places, namely THE LINE-UP and CHARLEY VARRICK.