Picks: Average Fare
All the Real Girls, dir. David Gordon Green. This writer-director has talent, but this writer-director also has a self-serving and indulgent streak to him. The first shot of the film is a long-running shot of two characters, a man and a woman, standing across from one another outside one evening. The young woman wants to touch him; he is not sure he wants to be touched. She wants him to kiss her; he is not sure that's a good idea. Soon we learn that the main character, Joe, allegedly has had sex with every young woman in this Southern mill town-a version of the town in the classic film Norma Rae. But never as I watched this character unfold did I believe he had done what he was supposed to have done. You see, the premise is that he meets a woman who has come back to town after years in boarding school-and this woman he begins to care for. Now what will happen if he does not have sex with her? How will he handle commitment? Again, I never believed his past, so I could not fully empathize with him in the present.
What is this film about? It is about the establishment of mood. It is about the inarticulateness of today's young people. None of these people were educated. None of these characters had escaped from this town-except for Joe's girlfriend. I could not believe in her either, because if she had escaped, she would never have returned to the town and become trapped within it again. This writer-director is all about mood. This writer director is all about the "profound." That first scene goes on too long. It was a cute idea-but it could have been cut in half. The ideas are easy to pick apart because the characters are inconsistent. The writer-director creates a horrible older brother of the young woman character (Tip), but he pulls punches with his characterization. He should be brutal, unfeeling, unrelenting, and always dangerous. But before long we see that he is broken because he got a young woman pregnant. Perhaps he loves her. But he won't say. Men don't love women; men love men. I can believe that theme, but its expression here is unfulfilling because the writer-director does not take sufficient risks in playing out that idea. So the men are limited-then let's see the fruits of their self-imposed limitations.
Two-thirds of the way through the film I was ready for the film to end. Guess what happens? Man and woman meet and fall in love. Man resists falling in love because he will be disloyal to his male friends. Man overcomes that resistance. Woman cheats on man. Man is angry with woman. Finally, man and woman have some more conversations. Man and woman almost make up. Man and woman appear closer to making up. Finally, the film ends. Then there is the pretentious dialogue-too often characters make speeches to each other rather than engage in conversation. "My problem is between me and me"; "I'm trying to become a better person"; "I want to make sure the words in my head come cross to you"; "She makes me decent"; "I was glad I had a pain"; "I want to dance, but I don't want you to watch." And on and on. This understanding of young love may not be far off the mark; but I can tell you it was boring after a while.
Despite my frustrations with this writer-director (equal emphasis on both roles), the most positive thing I can say about the film is that the director part of the writer-director has a gift for visual images that is going to amount to something. He reminded me of Werner Herzog at times-grasping the importance of the image as iconic, abstract, a representation of a mood or emotion. Some of the images in this film are to die for. But then there is the issue of character and plot. I was reminded of the deficiency of Monster Ball-that too much plot gets in the way of character development. I could use a lot more character and a lot less plot. And I need to have characters remain consistent with their attitudes and values. This director has the talent-but this was not the realization of it.
Bonhoeffer, dir. Martin Doblemeier. I was interested in seeing this documentary because Bonhoeffer’s story is famous—a famous theologian, he tried to resist the Nazis, and he was hanged by them just before WWII ended. I am a devout Christian, and I am impressed by this level of resistance against evil. But this documentary failed to provide me with any significant revelations about the inner workings of this man’s heart and mind. Lots of people were interviewed, archival footage was utilized extensively, and certainly a version of this man’s story was revealed in the course of the documentary. But something was missing to me. Why did he participate in a plot to kill Hitler if he was a man of God? What lay behind his emotions, his passions, his yearnings, his failures, his charisma? I walked away from the documentary simply feeling that this man’s life had been summarized only—not in any way captured and made whole.
Carnages, dir. Delphine Glauze (France, et al.). Early in this film I was ready to sit back and enjoy this as at least a four-star film. In an early scene a lovely doe-eyed French girl, who we saw earlier in a school scene suffer a seizure in front of the other kids, is sitting at home and watching a bullfight on television. The parallel editing in this scene brought together the points of view of the young bullfighter Victor (who was shown in a pensive moment in the first scene) and the little girl (watching the television). Occasionally, we see the image on the television set as well—a great three-cornered editing strategy. The scene becomes increasingly tense, especially when a huge black dog jumps on the couch next to the girl and settles down. Hmm. A huge black bull and a monstrous black dog. The tension mounted until it became excruciating. What will happen next? Eventually, the matador is gored—but survives—and the little girl goes into another room, where her Mom and Dad are now washing Fred the monster dog, and she announces that she a man transfished. (She confuses the double meaning of the word pike—fish vs. spear). Now by this time four other stories have been introduced, and the next thing that happens is that two more characters are introduced, and soon the director settles down to the exercise of cutting back and forth between the various stories. This strategy worked for a while, and then a simple emotion occurred to me. I wanted some closure—some payback for watching patiently this flower unfold. What I got instead was a collection of boring characters. Only the bullfighter and the little girl interested me. And the first was in a coma through most of the film—awaiting a liver donor. Ah, yes—which of these characters will die and then donate his/her liver? By the time I found out, I didn’t care anymore. I cared nothing for the cheating husband, his very pregnant wife, the ineffectual actress, the silly man who calls random phone numbers, Winnie’s mother and father, or the half-baked taxidermist and his half-dotty mother. Now there were some beautiful shots in this film—naked men and women working on their primal selves in a swimming pool—under the tutelage of a massive woman with short blonde hair and big black eyebrows; or shots of the dead bull being transported from the bullring and then processed for meat; or an old woman carrying the bull’s horns as she walks down a set of railroad tracks; or the ending shots of Winnie—sitting in the audience with her parents and wearing glowing el toro horns. After a while the words ponderous and self-indulgent occurred to me. Late in the film one of the characters announces a theme—people are so lonely. Well—now that’s a novel idea. And then he asks another character for her secrets. Yes, people have secrets—but acting as if one has discovered ideas of loneliness and secretiveness does not impress me. I wanted to get out of this film, rewind the tape, and watch the scene I summarized above again. Poor little Winnie; poor bullfighter. They should have been in their own film. The rest of this was nothing but sound and fury, signifying nothing.
A Decade Under the Influence, dir. Ted Demme & Richard LaGravenese. This film is required viewing for anyone who has studied cinema in depth for vocation or avocation. My first impression: what a strange feeling to watch directors in their 60s talking about cinema in the 70s, when they were in the fullness of their youths. Most of the documentary is talking heads combined with scenes from selected films. The film was more descriptive than analytical, I thought. I enjoyed seeing some of the great film clips. Much of the film was about influences, from the French New Wave, Roger Corman's American International Pictures (a treat was seeing Corman talking about his influence), and the changing sexual mores of the 1960s and the impact on 1970s cinema. A key theme in the film was the assertion that the major studios learned from the independents and eventually wrested control of the art form from the small guys. I got the impression that film of the 1970s were a director's medium. Coppola, Scorsese, and Friedkin discovered something in those years. Compare their work in the 1970s to their work in the 1990s—how things have changed. We hear from Julie Christie and from Polly Platt (production designer and producer). Films like The French Connection, The Last Picture Show, The Godfather, Mean Streets, M*A*S*H, Deliverance, and Chinatown are featured. Inevitably the structure of the documentary becomes episodic. The directors describe the role of women in the films of the 1970s; some of the directors reveal a secret or two regarding how the film was made or how an actor's performance was inspired. The directors suggest that the flurry of originality of the 1970s was actually confined to the first half of the decade. By the time Jaws came along in 1975 the studios had figured out how to subdue the streak of directorial independence. The era of the blockbuster began. For example, after Star Wars came out 20th Century Fox stock doubled in two weeks. The element of risk was rooted out. By the end of the 1970s studios knew what they wanted and knew how to go about getting it. So the film is like a travelogue of sorts. We revisit the 1970s and remember how much creativity was let loose in the span of a few years.
Holes, dir. Andrew Davis. I lost interest in this film before long because it held itself to a one-note level of mediocrity. I never believed the prison-farm in the middle of a desert (former lake bed). I never believed in the kids in the camp. We have a Rainbow Coalition of kids, but the leading character (Stanley) is Caucasian. All the kids have the 21st century plague of cynicism. A tough black kid is the leader of the pack. A wide-eyed white kid is a background character. A fat black kid with thick glasses is another sidekick character. A short black kid is a mysterious mute. The tough black kid takes the lead of the pecking order of abuse that is handed down from one kid to the next. But there never is a challenge to that pecking order. Boys will be boys, right? But I was not amused by the nastiness and the conventionality of the characterizations. Why is Stanley the only articulate, educated, compassionate young person in the film? Why can't some of the secondary characters step forward and show stimulating qualities of character? Nothing in the film hints at real human suffering. None of the kids ever gets heat stroke from digging all day in the sun. Lizards are everywhere, but only one kid gets bitten (and that's at the beginning of the film—so that Stanley can be his replacement). None of the children is beaten. None of the children dies. The music is usually upbeat, fast-paced, hip-hop, syrupy, loud, and constantly reinforces the "happy ending" that will prevail. The requisite CD tracks for the film are played in one montage sequence after another. Consumers, beware! Great actors like Sigourney Weaver, Tim Blake Nelson, and Jon Voight are absolutely wasted in the film. I do give credit to Voight for finding the right pitch of accent and inflection and movement to make his sniveling character come alive. The film was a cross between Son of Flubber (1963)—with a crazy inventor-father—and any animated Disney film of the last five years about treasure hunting in some exotic locale. Yes, it was a Disney Film. Yes, it will make lots of money. Yes, it had some high-end production values. No, it was not a good film. No, the subplot about a beautiful schoolteacher who kisses a young black—the source of the background story of how this God-forsaken place came to be—does not work. In 19th century America a white schoolteacher would in no way be in a position to fall in love with a black man, no matter the impeccable quality of that character. To plant this subplot as the source of evil in the film (because it leads to racial violence!) is even more cynical than the forced cynicism of all the kids in the camp. Now if John Leonard were writing this review, he would make one of his lists: the wild onions, the ancient curse of Madame Zeroni, the Kissing Bandit, canned peaches with a long shelf life, a hidden treasure. Too many twists are packed into this plot. But I return to Jon Voight, bless his heart. At one point he tells a fairy tale: "Once upon a time there was a magical place where it never rained. The end." That line got the biggest laugh in the film. I would revise that fairy tale slightly. "Once upon a time there was a Walt Disney film that actually provided insights into the minds and values of young people. The end." But then, that would be a real fairy tale, wouldn't it?
The Italian Job, dir. F. Gary Gray. (USA). A quick start and then the film goes in the tank. I can tell you exactly where. The opening scene is a quick-paced heist of a safe filled with gold bars in Venice. The locale, the action scenes, the timing of the cutting—all worked nicely to grab my attention. Then we cut to a scene in the Swiss Alps, where all of the guys are gathered to celebrate their big heist. That scene fell flat because there was no chemistry between the main characters, and two quick reaction shots of Edward Norton’s character too obviously showed he was about to betray them. Then comes the betrayal—and Norton’s character is conniving and downright evil. How can the other members of the gang make their escape given those circumstances. That’s what these films are all about—you don’t ask too many questions. Getting back to the scene before all hell breaks loose. The only interesting character was played by Donald Sutherland, and guess what happens to him when Norton and friends betray the team? No doubt about it. And just think—this old fellow has a beautiful daughter, as skilled at safecracking as he is—and guess who she will end up with in the film? That’s all you need to know. You’re supposed to simply relax and enjoy it. But I was not impressed. I remember watching Siskel and Roeper and groaning when I learned that they both liked the film. What I saw as predictable and formulaic and uninspired they raved about. That’s the nature of the film viewing experience. I can only report on my response to the film—and at a visceral level I did not think it rated more than average fare.
I know this film was a remake of a film by the same title, made in 1969, but that doesn’t mean the remake is going to be as good or better than the original. In some respects, I would like to see the original in order to compare them. As to Mark Wahlberg, all I can say is that he does not have the charisma to carry off this kind of role. The last time he tried to be someone he isn’t, in last year’s The Truth About Charlie, my response was similar—he does not project a character that comes across as self-contained, self-confident, his own man. Where is Cary Grant when you need him? Where is Matt Damon, who would have brought a surer energy to this role? And then there is Charlize Theron, doing her best to impersonate Angela Jolie. I don’t believe she blinked once. Here’s the problem: everything worked perfectly for the good guys (if you can call them good guys). Every trick they pulled worked flawlessly; but it would have been much more interesting to show the blemishes of human endeavors as part of the package.
The music was uninspired, and the montages were cranked out with predictable regularity (buy the CD, buy the CD!). After the breakdown of the team (with Ed Norton’s betrayal), the rest of the film never regains the energy of the opening scene. Ed Norton is not a villain. I repeat, Ed Norton is not a villain. His boyish earnestness and naïvete and wholesomeness work against any attempt to characterize him as a villain. He is a deep character, someone who projects the kind of intensity and self-confidence we look for in a hero. Move over Mark Wahlberg and bring in Edward Norton. He would have been a much better pick as the main character, Charlie Crocker.
Then another cynical application of commercialism is foisted upon the audience with the appearance of the mini-Coopers as getaway cars. These little vehicles are more retro than the retro Volkswagen, and yet as they are used here they disappoint. Charlize Theron drives like an Indy race car driver, she has the quickest Dark Night of the Soul in recent cinema history (persuading her to join forces with the betrayed team), and then everyone in the newly gathered team is dumped into the boring landscape of Los Angeles. Just think: we start in Venice, and we end in Los Angeles. If locale is character, then Los Angeles is a boring character. It is portrayed as a traffic-ridden locale, and that means we have room for lots of chase scenes with the mini-Coopers. The more I watched the new team, the more I realized that although individuals within the team were interesting (and idiosyncratic), the team as a whole lacked chemistry. And as for Charlize Theron’s character: she is a fine actor, but here she plays a comic book character that is one-dimensional at best.
Eventually, I concluded that I was bored by this film because I could not care less that the new team would steal gold from the guy who betrayed him. After all, the good guys were not really good guys. They certainly were master thieves—but still, they were thieves. It was not their gold to steal. The good guys are almost too sweet here. I kept thinking, “Why don’t they work for the government? After all, we could use some honest people working to aid our society.” (Ironic that when we see Charlize Theron for the first time she is helping the police open safes—but then joins the dark side of the force because she has to get revenge for Ed Norton killing her father. So that’s why we throw over our values—in order to get revenge. Sounds simplistic to me. A last word about the editing. As I watched the action scenes I got the impression that the quick-paced cutting was used to suggest the rawness of the action rather than to reveal it. When I think about great action scenes, and great editing to complement those scenes, I think of a film like Ronin, where no special effects were used in the chase scenes. But then again: that film had characters and chemistry between characters. If you seek only to be mediocre, then you will be doomed to achieve mediocrity. As the film droned on, it looked more and more like a boring and mindless video game. Notice the adjectives there: boring and mindless. Excuse me while I pop in my DVD of Ronin and watch a good film.
Average Fare M-Z.